W.P. Kinsella 2009
“Inspiration is hard work.” — W.P. Kinsella
W.P. Kinsella is the 15th recipient of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award.
Formerly based in White Rock, then Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, W.P. Kinsella is now “unintentionally retired” and lives in relative seclusion with is fourth wife in the Fraser Canyon following a near-fatal accident during which he was struck down by a car in 1997 while walking near his home. A similar traffic accident befell American writer Stephen King when he was out for walk. Kinsella filed a civil suit against the driver of the vehicle, arguing that his successful career has been cut short.
Like King, Kinsella has had his work denigrated by some who are envious of his popularity and Kinsella remains B.C.’s closest equivalent to King in terms of adaptations for television and movies. In addition to Field of Dreams and Dance Me Outside, movies were made of his short stories The Job, Lieberman in Love, John Cat and Caroline (The Sense She Was Born With.) He has published more than 30 books of fiction, as well as hundreds of short stories, articles, stageplays and screenplays.
W.P. Kinsella (William Patrick Kinsella) was born in Edmonton on May 25, 1935 as the son of John and Olive Kinsella. His father was a plastering contractor and he was home-schooled by his mother in a remote Alberta homestead near Darwell, 60 km west of Edmonton. Without other children around, he used his imagination to entertain himself and took correspondance courses until Grade Five.
“I’m one of these people who woke up at age five knowing how to read and write,” he says. His family moved into Edmonton when he was ten. He was an avid reader who developed a keen interest in baseball, although he himself was never much of a player. At age 14 he won a YMCA contest for a short story called Diamond Doom about a murder in a ballpark.
At 18 he published a sci-fi story about a totalitarian society. He married in 1957 and raised a family. He has been a type 2 diabetic for most of his adult life. In 1967 he moved to Victoria where he drove a taxi and operated a pizza restaurant called Caesar’s Italian Village. Other ‘vile occupations’ have included selling Yellow Pages advertising, managing a credit bureau and selling life insurance. In 1970 he began taking writing courses at the University of Victoria, mainly benefiting from the tutelage of W.D. Valgardson.
He received his B.A. from UVic in 1974. He began selling his stories in 1975. He received an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1978. He taught English at the University of Calgary from 1978 to 1983. His work ethic remained consistent and he was stubbornly persistent about re-submitting material that was rejected. In 1983, he made his decision to try making his living as a writer on a fulltime basis.
W.P. Kinsella’s popular “Indian stories”, mostly set on the Hobbema reserve of Alberta, have resulted in a remarkable string of highly entertaining tales that have been superficially attacked as racist. They feature a Cree narrator Silas Ermineskin, a would-be writer, and his outrageous entrepreneurial sidekick Frank Fencepost, as they invariably outwit white authorities. Despite the widespread appeal of these stories, Kinsella didn’t receive the Leacock Medal for Humour until 1987, ten years after he made his debut. He flatly rejects criticism that he has demeaned Indians by resorting to stereotypes.
Dance Me Outside, a superb story in his first collection, was made into a Canadian movie by director Bruce McDonald, but Kinsella abhors the result. “I gave him plot, geography and characters and he chose to ignore them,” he says. The main characters have resurfaced in the TV series called The Rez. Kinsella was also perturbed when director/actor Christine Lahti and co-producer Jana Sue Memel won a best live-action short Oscar for Lieberman in Love, based on a Kinsella short story, but the author was not mentioned in their acceptance speech. “They thanked everyone and their dog but me,” Kinsella told Kerry Diotte of the Edmonton Sun. (Christine Lahti did literally thank her dog.) “I later got a full-page apology in Variety. I think it was just carelessness more than anything. They buy these projects, work on them 18 months and then consider them their own.”
Kinsella is better known around the world for his baseball-related fiction, often incorporating magical or supernatural events. One of his best stories, The Thrill of the Grass, recounts how a retired locksmith reclaims the energy and purpose of his youth by secretly replacing artificial turf in a major league baseball stadium with real turf.
After a young American editor in Boston named Larry Kessenich saw a brief synopsis of W.P. Kinsella’s short story called Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa in Publisher’s Weekly, he contacted Kinsella and asked for a novel, Shoeless Joe, that became the basis for the 1989 Kevin Costner movie Field of Dreams, for which Kinsella only received $250,000.
The phrase ‘if you build it he will come’ has entered everyday speech from this story of an Iowa farmer named Ray Kinsella who erects a baseball field in his cornfield to attract bygone baseball stars from the 1919 Chicago White Sox. Audaciously, the central character kidnaps J.D. Salinger as part of the plot. Kinsella decided to use Salinger’s name after discovering Salinger had used the name Kinsella for the main character in a story Salinger had published in Mademoiselle magazine in 1947 called ‘Young Girl of 1941 with No Waist at All.’
Non-Indian and non-baseball books include his collection of short stories, Red Wolf, Red Wolf, his nostalgic Alberta novel called Box Socials, some poetry in The Rainbow Warehouse and a non-fiction book Two Spirits Soar, about Saskatchewan Cree painter Allen Sapp and Sapp’s mentor, Allen Gonor. Kinsella believes some of his best work can be found in Red Wolf, Red Wolf. Kinsella has won the $10,000 Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship, the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Canadian Authors Association Fiction Award and Leacock Medal for Humour.
He has also received the Order of Canada. Kinsella has strongly supported the Reform Party in federal politics and has been a member of American Atheists. He taught in Calgary for five years before relocating to White Rock, B.C.
Married several times, once to fellow writer Ann Knight, Kinsella was stung in public by a vengeful portrait in Vancouver magazine by his ex-lover Evelyn Lau, with whom he had a relationship from 1995 to 1997. Kinsella sued for the detailed portrait that exposed him to ridicule; and the case was settled out of court. Vancouver magazine published an apology. On October 11, 1997, Kinsella was struck while walking on a south Surrey sidewalk when a vehicle driven by Rupert Sasseville backed out of a driveway.
He claimed injuries suffered have made it impossible to write, giving rise to a lawsuit. He collaborated with a Japanese journalist to produce a book in Japanese about the right fielder of the Seattle Mariners, Ichiro Suzuki, the American League MVP and Rookie of the Year, but Kinsella provided his content via interviews, not by writing. As a big fan of traditional country ‘n’ western singers such as Tom T. Hall, Merle Haggard and George Strait, Kinsella would like to one day have some song lyrics recorded.
Throughout Kinsella’s work, there has been a consistent sympathy for the underdog. In The Further Adventures of Slugger McBatt, for instance, an unathletic boy wins the approval of a star school athlete when he draws a comic strip based on the star’s exploits. “My life is not interesting,” he told Maclean’s in 1993, “What you can invent is much better than anything that’s actually happened to you.”
W.P. Kinsella received the Order of British Columbia in 2005.
Dance Me Outside (Oberon, 1977)
Scars (Oberon, 1978)
Born Indian (Oberon, 1981)
The Moccasin Telegraph (Penguin, 1983)
The Fencepost Chronicles (Collins, 1986) winner of the Leacock Medal for Humour, 1987)
The Miss Hobbema Pageant (Doubleday, 1989)
Brother Frank’s Gospel Hour (HarperCollins, 1994)
Secret of the Northern Lights (1998)
Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa (Oberon, 1980)
The Thrill of the Grass (Penguin, 1984)
Shoeless Joe (1982)
The Iowa Baseball Confederacy (Collins, 1986)
The Further Adventures of Slugger McBatt (Collins, 1988); published in the USA as Go The Distance (Southern Methodist University Press, 1995)
The Dixon Cornbelt League (HarperCollins, 1993)
If Wishes Were Horses (1996)
Diamonds Forever (HarperCollins, 1997)
Magic Time (Doubleday, 1999)
Japanese Baseball and Other Stories (2000)
Ichiro Dreams: Ichiro Suzuki and the Seattle Mariners (Kodansha, 2002) – non-fiction, Japanese only.
The Alligator Report (1985)
Red Wolf, Red Wolf (1987)
The Rainbow Warehouse (Pottersfield, 1989) – poems, reflections. With Ann Knight.
Even at this Distance (Pottersfield) – poems. With Ann Knight.
Two Spirits Soar: The Art of Allen Sapp, the Inspiration of Allan
Gonor (Don Mills, Ontario: Stoddart, 1990).
Box Socials (HarperCollins, 1991)
The Winter Helen Dropped By (1995)
The Secret of the Northern Lights (Thistledown, 1998)