“I could feel the magic building like a gathering storm. It felt as if small animals were scurrying through my veins. I knew it was going to happen soon.”
– Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella
By IAN WILSON
Before there was a Field of Dreams – be it the movie starring Kevin Costner, or the actual Iowa ball diamond etched into a cornfield – there was just a guy day-dreaming in a classroom about baseball.
In this case, it was the teacher.
William Patrick Kinsella, who was born and raised in Edmonton, ventured out of Alberta in the late 1960s. He headed west to Vancouver Island, where he enrolled in writing classes at the University of Victoria and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in creative writing in 1974.
From there, Kinsella went south of the border to the well-respected Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. Suffice to say, that’s where the magic happened … or, at least, that’s where it started.
Iowa provided the backdrop, the inspiration, and the guts of his masterpiece work of literature, the novel Shoeless Joe.
Kinsella had a lengthy resume by that point of his life. He had worked as a government clerk, managed a credit bureau, drove a cab and worked in a pizza joint. But literary-wise, he was still working toward his big breakthrough.
FROM CORNFIELDS TO CALGARY
Professor Chris Wiseman, meanwhile, began teaching a poetry class that was the genesis of the creative writing program within the University of Calgary’s English department while Kinsella was still studying in Victoria.
“It was a tad controversial in the English department, and it took some time before I could persuade people that we needed a teacher of fiction writing, as well as poetry,” Wiseman told Alberta Dugout Stories recently.
“I was not allowed to teach more than one creative writing course because of the need for me to teach English literature as well.”
After his poetry class flourished, and Dr. Hallvard Dahlie became the new head of the department, the decision was ultimately made to create a position for a teacher of fiction writing. The posting attracted few qualified applicants, but Kinsella was among those who wrote in to offer his services in 1978.
He applied from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which Wiseman had attended between 1959 and 1962.
“We weren’t entirely convinced by his application, as he had no PhD, his first book had just – I believe – come out, but hadn’t been heard of, and we needed someone to teach modern British literature and freshman literature, as well as fiction writing,” said Wiseman, who retired from the U of C 20 years ago.
“He had absolutely no qualifications for this. We hemmed and hawed, got reassurances from him by phone that he would bone up on the literature and academic part, and, for want of anyone else, we offered him the position.”
Wiseman was the Associate Professor of English by that point and had never heard of Kinsella, or his first published book, a collection of short stories called Dance Me Outside.
“I read some of the stories in his first book when we decided to hire him. I didn’t know how good of an English professor he would be, honestly,” said Wiseman, who has published 11 books and given readings from Victoria to St. John’s, Newfoundland.
“But there was student demand for a fiction writing course, and there might not have been money for it the next year, so we decided, after hearing his assurances, that he could probably do the job.”
HEAD OF THE CLASS
The late 1970s were a time of great change for Kinsella. He was in his 40s and had just married his second wife, Ann Knight, a fellow writer he met while taking classes in Iowa.
He had all the ingredients of his first novel, Shoeless Joe, but it wouldn’t be published until 1982. And while he aspired to make a living as a writer, he still had bills to pay.
As for his new career as a professor, it was unclear how long he would stay in the rotation.
“From the start, it was obvious that his interest was almost exclusively in teaching creative writing, and that he was only barely keeping one class ahead in the literature courses he had to teach, which he disliked doing, as he told me and others often,” said Wiseman, a member of the Order of Canada.
“His writing students found him enthusiastic and some of them, inspiring. His literature students didn’t. He stayed pretty aloof from us fellow professors, and never really fit into a university department, as it was clear that all he wanted to do was become a writer.”
Kinsella, who would later win the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour for The Fencepost Chronicles, had a standard load of three full courses and was scheduled to be in the classroom nine hours a week. He also worked a minimum of three hours a week in his office for student consultations and served on department committees.
“In his office there were no literary books or critical or academic books – just shelf after shelf of his own first book,” said the 81-year-old Wiseman.
“At one point he had a baseball on his office desk, but that might have been a present from a student. He didn’t discuss Shoeless Joe with me much, because I wasn’t a baseball fan, but he did give me some history of old players occasionally and was clearly obsessed with the game.”
‘A GREAT STORYTELLER’
One of his former students, Dave Makichuk, has fond memories of Kinsella’s class.
“W.P. Kinsella was a great storyteller, and kept us spell-bound with fascinating stories and insights into many things,” said Makichuk, who needed one more English course to complete his communications degree when he selected Kinsella’s class.
“I knew absolutely nothing about him, or what I was about to experience.”
Makichuk, who went on to a lengthy journalism career after he attended the U of C, said Kinsella often read passages from Dance Me Outside and, of course, talked about baseball.
“It was his love of baseball that mostly remains vivid in my memory,” Makichuk told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“I recall how he described, in detail, a single baseball play … on and on he went, pointing out things that were going on – on the field, in the dugout, each player, each team, each coach in the dugout or on the field. Everybody was involved, and it was absolutely fascinating to me, and, probably the whole class, as no one had ever described it that way before.”
Makichuk called Kinsella’s baseball knowledge “unsurpassed,” and said he’s never met anyone with such an amazing grasp of the game.
Kinsella also told his students about his summer baseball plans, which included visits to multiple MLB ballparks each year.
“I recall him telling us — and this was something very near and dear to his heart — how he would pack up his belongings for the summer into a tiny car that was good on gas, but short on interior space,” said Makichuk.
“For the entire summer, he would do nothing but visit major league baseball parks across the U.S., buying tickets in the cheap seats, and sleeping in the car. He had perfected it down to a science, and boasted how cheaply he managed to do this.”
THE PEANUT GALLERY
Despite accolades from some pupils like Makichuk, Kinsella had his detractors as well.
“There was sometimes a bit of student unrest about his not following the syllabus,” recalled Wiseman.
“His ex-writing students still speak highly of him, but it turns out that a lot of the student complaints about his literary classes were justified. He missed classes … he even sent his totally unqualified wife to teach his classes, I’m told by students, and he would not take the academic part of his job very seriously.”
The reviews of his students and peers were mixed and paint a picture of a man who was a good teacher, when he wanted to be. Wiseman said Kinsella – who opted for a doctor-assisted death in 2016 – just wasn’t meant to be a university professor.
“Please don’t think I disliked him. I only disliked his neglecting students,” said Wiseman.
“Bill was never going to be an academic. He hated what he thought was the pettiness – his word – of university life; the grind of marking papers, the committees, the talk of literary evaluation. He had a good few years with the U of C, but he really wasn’t missed when he left, as he had been largely in his own world of writing.”
That world of writing would ultimately lead to Shoeless Joe, and the major motion picture based on that book, Field of Dreams.
It also led to several other writings on baseball, including The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, The Thrill of the Grass, The Dixon Cornbelt League, Box Socials and The Further Adventures of Slugger McBatt.