Long before author William Patrick Kinsella ever dreamt about baseball in Iowa cornfields, he was a stimulus-starved child growing up in rural Alberta. What he lacked in local events and community activities as a homeschooled farm kid near Darwell – 75 kilometres northwest of Edmonton – Kinsella made up for using his imagination.
That creativity served him well as a writer, as William Steele notes in his new biography, Going the Distance: The Life and Works of W.P. Kinsella. The book provides a comprehensive look at the man made famous for his 1982 novel Shoeless Joe, which was the basis of the seminal baseball movie Field of Dreams.
Steele examines Kinsella’s childhood in Darwell, his teenage years in Edmonton and his adult life, which saw him teach English at the University of Calgary and study writing in Iowa before he moved to British Columbia, where he worked as a taxi driver and a restaurant owner before he found his groove as an author in the 1980s and 1990s.
In this excerpt from the second chapter of the biography – simply entitled “Edmonton” – Steele recounts Kinsella’s first experience playing baseball:
For many children, playing sports is one of the easiest ways to immerse themselves into the world of their peers, and Billy’s first contact with baseball occurred during the initial week in the new school. Having never played the game, he stood to the side at recess watching the other children, when suddenly somebody handed him a bat and said, “Yer up!” Though normally right-handed, he stepped to the plate as a left-handed batter before making contact, driving the ball into left field. Not knowing what to do, he stood watching the ball while his classmates yelled at him to start running. Someone grabbed him by the arm and pulled him towards first base.
Unfortunately, the joy of making contact was soon replaced by the embarrassment of the ball being thrown back and him being called out.
Years later, still stinging from the incident, he recalled, “The worst thing was I had shown my stupidity in front of everyone. Children are especially cruel to anyone who is different, and I had all my weaknesses pointed out to me in no uncertain terms.” Compounding his embarrassment was the fact that he wore bib overalls to school and sported a haircut given to him by his mother, making him self-conscious of the stark contrast between himself and his classmates, nearly all of whom had grown up in the city. Because he was so unused to contact with other children, Billy was never certain whether someone was teasing him or being serious.
As he continued adjusting to life in Edmonton, especially at school, Billy discovered that unlike other children his age, he had no ability to skate, swim or ride a bicycle. Even as an adult who had made a name for himself as a writer, he continued to maintain, “Those things are totally irrelevant to an adult and still, [I] always will bitterly resent the children who made fun of me because of those lacks.” In fact, he took immense pleasure when he saw some of these childhood acquaintances in dead-end, blue collar jobs, taking great joy thinking of them “in their stupidity and mediocrity” and wondering, “How much good did being able to skate and swim and ride a bicycle do [them]?”
Already demonstrating the hyper-competitive attitude that would motivate him as an adult, young Billy soon began looking for opportunities that would afford him a chance to stand out from the crowd.
In Edmonton, for the first time in his ten years, Billy was able to observe on a regular basis other family dynamics and gauge how much his own life at home differed from that of his friends, particularly those who had siblings. One day his friend Arden Barrett invited him home for dinner with his parents and two sisters. Watching another family’s dinner routine and interactions with each another, Billy saw what it was like to be part of family with multiple children.
He had never particularly wanted any brothers and sisters of his own, and this feeling was further confirmed as he watched the contentiousness between his friends and their siblings. His attitude was summed up years later in the short story “Nursie,” when he wrote, “Nursie really knows how to hate. She has brothers and sisters.” Unable to understand how siblings could be so quick to forgive each other after fighting, he later commented, “If someone crosses me, it is forever. I never forget and I seldom forgive.” Indeed, his grudges against those whom he felt had slighted him personally or professionally in later years became legendary among friends, family and peers.
The move to Edmonton ultimately resulted in Billy making more friends than he had ever had while living in the country; but one of the main reasons for the family’s move to the city, his schooling, eventually drove a greater wedge between him and his father.
In the early months of his first year in public school, Kinsella brought home a math test on which he had scored 77%, placing him second in the class and well ahead of many students who had failed. Rather than praising his son or offering any other encouraging words, John said, “Seventy-seven percent is only two points above seventy-five. That’s only three-quarters.” Fearing he would burst into tears while trying to speak, Billy said nothing and never again showed his father any paper or exam. Recalling the scene decades later, Kinsella was still “incoherent with anger” and admitted that he “was never particularly close to [his] father after that.” And while he claimed he never wrote autobiography, examples of strained father-son relationships or fathers who are altogether absent often appear in both his short stories and novels.
Steele – an English professor at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee – wrote his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation about Kinsella’s baseball stories. His first book, A Member of the Local Nine: Baseball and Identity in the Fiction of W.P. Kinsella, drew the attention of Kinsella, who asked Steele to write his biography.
Before Kinsella passed away in 2016, Steele conducted interviews with the Order of Canada recipient and was granted access to personal diaries, letters and unpublished notes.
The publication date for Going the Distance, a 304-page book published by Douglas & McIntyre, was Sept. 1, 2018.