On Saturday, September 17, 2016, Canadian author W.P. (Bill) Kinsella died at age 81.
The news didn’t make a lot of waves, but I did notice it, albeit a few days after it happened. To be honest, I don’t know Mr. Kinsella’s work beyond his 1982 novel Shoeless Joe. And in fact, I only know of this because it was the basis for my favorite movie of all time: Field of Dreams. I knew the name Kinsella because of the movie; Ray Kinsella was the name of Kevin Costner’s lead character. Tangentially I knew that Kinsella was also the name of the man who wrote the story – I thought it was “cool” that the novelist’s name was the main character’s name in the book, and that he was embedded in the movie in such a sublime way.
After reading about Mr. Kinsella’s passing on NPR’s website, I found myself surfing the web for stories about him, and wishing I had taken the time to know more about the man when he was still living.
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His own literary agent, Carolyn Swayze, said that Bill Kinsella was “a unique, creative and outrageously opinionated man.” According to CBC News, Ms. Swayze only became a literary agent due to his insistence that she represent his work. “He was a dedicated storyteller, performer, curmudgeon and irascible and difficult man,” she reportedly said. Douglas Todd, who profiled Mr. Kinsella in 1994, added this week, “W.P Kinsella was not a warm, romantic spiritual dreamer, like his characters. He was a complicated, aloof, cynical, irreverent, contradictory atheist. In other words, kind of interesting.”
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Sounds like a guy I would have liked to have known.
For those who may not be familiar with Field of Dreams (is there anyone who isn’t familiar with Field of Dreams?), it’s the story of an Iowa farmer who builds a baseball field in the middle of his corn crop, because he hears a mysterious voice telling him, “If you build it, he will come.” (In the book, the actual quote is “If you build it, they will come.”) The farmer – Ray Kinsella – thinks the voice is alluding to “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, legendary member of the infamous Chicago Black Sox baseball team who threw the 1919 World Series for profit and subsequently were kicked out of Major League baseball for life. Ray Kinsella assumes that if he builds the field, Shoeless Joe will return from the afterlife and be able to live out his dream of once again playing the game he loved. While this does happen, what the voice is alluding to turns out to be something far more personal, and far more compelling.
According to NPR’s Rose Friedman, “Kinsella wanted Shoeless Joe to be a ‘gentle read.'” She reports that he said, “I put in no sex, no violence, no obscenity, none of that stuff that sells. I wanted to write a book for imaginative readers, an affirmative statement about life.”
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And indeed it was, if the movie was any indication.
I feel a little vindicated in appreciating the author through the movie instead of his own novel, because apparently Bill Kinsella also loved the movie. According to Professor Willie Steele, Mr. Kinsella’s biographer, “The first time he read the script, it actually caused him to tear up, he thought it was so beautifully written. And when he saw the film, he teared up again, watching his own work up on the screen.” (Prof. Steele, who wrote his master’s thesis and PhD dissertation about Mr. Kinsella’s literature, was hand- picked by the author to write his biography; Steele hopes to have the biography published next year.)
But Mr. Kinsella appears to be a story unto himself – which actually isn’t all that uncommon. People are complicated and multi-faceted and amazing, if we only look deeply enough.
W.P. “Bill” Kinsella was a prolific writer, authoring over 30 books including fiction and non-fiction, poetry and anthologies. He’s sold millions of books, been given numerous awards, and in 1993 received the Order of Canada, which recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to that Northern nation.
Often, he wrote about baseball (he loved the Toronto Blue Jays and the Seattle Mariners, loved the designated hitters rule, hated artificial turf, and was heartily disillusioned by the 1994 players strike) and First Nation peoples. Mr. Kinsella’s first book was 1977’s anthology Dance Me Outside, which was written from the perspective of a young Cree Indian. Not being of the First Nation himself, Mr. Kinsella was sometimes charged with cultural appropriation, which he categorically denied, stating that a writer has the latitude to write about whatever he “damn well wants.”
He likened himself to being an author as entertainer, giving the reader what they wanted which meant leaving them “warm and fuzzy” rather than depressed. Although he was a staunch atheist (his biggest disappointment in his own father – who was both a semi-pro baseball player and a farmer – was that the elder Kinsella wasn’t religious until he knew he was going to die, at which time he embraced the Catholicsm of his youth; his son found this incredibly disingenuous, calling it “cowardly”), he nevertheless wrote works full of religious imagery because it’s fun and it sells. “And academics derive sexual stimulation from it,” he stated, caustically.
In fact, he detested the Catholic church, calling it “a vile organization.” He also believed that religion was at the root of most wars, and that fundamentalists (including the Catholic Church) operated solely on fear and guilt. In an interview, he said ”In another life, if I knew what I know now, I’d get into TV evangelism. Because TV evangelism proves you obviously don’t have to believe any of what you say to be successful.”
He also hated wasteful government programs (which was most of them, in his view), unions, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp, bilingualism, seat belts and Greenpeace – and anyone who tried to tell him what to do.
He dressed like a cowboy and often sported a long, curled mustache. He was married four times, three of which ended in divorce. He was opportunistic, showing up for this 30th high school reunion with a stack of books in his car to sell, buying old bike frames, painting them, then flipping them for a profit, opening a pizza parlor without ever having made a pizza in his life until the day the place opened. He raised his two daughters to be fiercely independent.
He even died on his own terms, claiming the Canadian right to utilize physician-assisted suicide, and requested that no memorial service be held for him once he was gone.
In 1997, Mr. Kinsella was hit by a car while walking on a sidewalk. He sustained a head injury which he claimed robbed him of a desire to write because it had become too hard to concentrate. Instead, he turned to playing internet Scrabble, becoming an “online Scrabble junkie.” That is, until 2011 when he published his first book in over a decade, Butterfly Winter, which was, of course, about baseball (more specifically, about a pair of twins whose “divine destiny” for baseball started with games of catch in the womb).
His final work, Russian Dolls, slated to be published in 2017, has been described as a collection of linked stories about a struggling author and his muse, who tells him “dark, dangerously inconsistent stories of her past.” I think I might pick up a copy when it comes out, just for the heck of it.
And tomorrow night, when my son comes home for a visit, before the Minnesota Twins game against the Seattle Mariners in the last home series of the year, I might just sit down with my boy and watch Field of Dreams again. After all, it is my favorite movie of all time.
~ Sharon Browning