Going the Distance with Kinsella

For William Steele, the Kevin Costner baseball movie Field of Dreams offered an introduction to the world of Alberta author William Patrick Kinsella. It was a common entry point for many fans of the Order of Canada recipient. What Steele didn’t know at the time was that he would devote decades of his life to researching and writing about the controversial author and his literature.

The result of Steele’s labour is the recently-released biography Going the Distance: The Life and Works of W.P. Kinsella. The book provides an extensive look at Kinsella’s early life, his adult years working odd jobs, and his ultimate success as an author. It also explores the Edmontonian’s writing – which generally fell into two categories: baseball stories and aboriginal tales – and the response to his somewhat controversial books.

Our own Ian Wilson of Alberta Dugout Stories had an hour-long conversation with Steele about Going the Distance. The following is a Q&A from that conversation with Steele about the biography:

Q: The film Field of Dreams – which is based on the novel Shoeless Joe – sparked your initial interest in W.P. Kinsella. How did you go from seeing a movie that you liked to this much longer journey with the author?

A: I was 16 when the movie came out, so it wasn’t like I immediately left the theatre thinking I was going to spend the next 20 years working on it. But a few years down the road I was finishing up my masters degree and I had to figure out what I was going to write my thesis on. I was always intrigued by how different the film and the book Shoeless Joe are. There are some pretty significant differences, so I looked at the father-son relationships in the book, in the film and kind of did a comparative study of the roles that they play. And when I pitched that idea I thought they were going to tell me that it’s not academic enough because you’re supposed to be boring when you’re an academic. They said, “Sure, that sounds interesting,” and I thought I dodged a bullet there.

When I pitched my PhD years later I thought: “Well it worked once. I’ll keep my fingers crossed and maybe they’ll let me write about baseball again.” I had looked at the idea of Bill’s baseball novels and the way that he uses baseball as a way of establishing individual identity, family identity, national and community identity, and once again they said, “That sounds really good.” I was two for two. My dissertation committee said “You should look at getting this published,” and at that point I just wanted to be done with it, and I thought I was finished. And then a few years later I blew the dust off the manuscript and sent it off and the publisher came back and they liked it but wanted me to add a section on short stories and a couple of the novels that I didn’t include and I did that.

Q: When Kinsella discovered your first book – A Member of the Local Nine: Baseball and Identity in the Fiction of W.P. Kinsella – what was his reaction?

A: Kinsella was not overly complimentary to academics, particularly literary critics, so I already had two strikes against me. I got this email from Kinsella and he said, “You really didn’t screw this up too badly.” My favourite line was that he said, “You don’t jump to absurd conclusions like so many academics do, trying to force interpretations of the work.” Coming from him, it was pretty high praise. I sent him a reply saying thank you and telling him how much I enjoyed his work and I thought that was it.

A couple weeks later, he said – and this is classic Kinsella – he said, “I wonder if you would be interested in writing my biography. Lesser authors than me have had their biography done.” And he asked if I would be interested.

I had never done a biography and really didn’t know what I was getting myself into but I jumped at the idea and here we are.

Q: A great deal of research went into the book. Did you end up coming to Alberta for your research? Tell me more about that process.

A: I’ve talked with friends of mine who have done rather extensive biographies on people, and specifically within baseball, and when I talked to them I realized how extraordinary my situation was.

I agreed to do the book in November of 2012. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t signing on to be a ghost writer and that I wasn’t signing on to do all the good things and none of the bad things.

To his credit, Bill never once turned me down for interviews, never once said, “I won’t talk about that,” or “I won’t answer that.” I started to get these packages in the mail. One of them was 500 pages of autobiographical notes that he had started back in 1983.

A lot of the travel that I normally would have done, got cut in half because of what he had given me. I didn’t get to go to Alberta because so much of the information was already collected for me. He didn’t throw anything away, which was both a blessing and a curse. When he realized the Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa was going to pay him cash, he saved everything … receipts, junk mail, notes. It really made my job in some ways a lot easier, but it also made it more difficult because I had to comb through all the junk mail.

He told me you’ll be hard-pressed to get 100 pages out of my life. It’s funny to me that he found his life uninteresting. I found it really interesting.

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Cover of Kinsella biography Going the Distance. Main banner image features author William Steele (picture by Kristi Jones) … photos courtesy Douglas & McIntyre

Q: Talk to me about his early life in Darwell, Alberta, which is a small town about 75 kilometres northwest of Edmonton. The chapter in the book about Darwell is entitled “Six Hundred Miles From Anywhere,” based on Kinsella’s description of the rural area and his recollections of riding a pony to school. Kinsella was rather isolated there and it appears that a lack of stimulus really laid the groundwork for his active imagination. 

A: He went briefly to the school in Darwell, but he homeschooled for 10 years and he was forced to make up his own games and use his own imagination and create scenarios in his own mind.

His imagination, as the only kid around, really sparked his storytelling ability – to himself at first. He claims he always felt socially awkward and never fit in. He had all these stories in his mind to keep him entertained, where he was always going to be the hero and things like that. And then you fast-forward 20 years to when he starts writing them down and it really takes off for him.

Q: Edmonton was where Kinsella got his first taste of baseball. He played the sport for the first time in Alberta’s capital and the first ball game he attended was at Renfrew Park. Tell me about his time there and what he saw in baseball at that point of his life.

A: He would listen to hockey out on the farm when he was growing up. His dad was a big hockey fan, but his dad also played semi pro baseball and traveled around the United States. It wasn’t as though Bill was completely unfamiliar with baseball, but he hadn’t seen it. As you know, baseball is very visual. Once you understand the game you can just listen to the radio, but if all you know about the game is what you heard on the radio, how would you understand the infield fly rule or the strike zone?

When he showed up and played that first game, he miraculously got a hit and then didn’t know what to do. That was one of his more embarrassing moments as a kid. But he loved the game and he loved the ways in which it really lends itself to storytelling. So much of that is in his baseball fiction, in his short stories and the novels.

There were a lot of teams there, at Renfrew Park, I think some semi pro teams there that would be affiliated with local businesses and he would follow them and then once he really got the game going in his blood he would start following the teams in the newspapers. There were exotic places that he mentioned like Ogden, Utah or Salt Lake City – places that you don’t really think are exotic but to a kid in Edmonton, it became a whole other world.

Once he became a teacher and a writer, he would spend his summers traveling – he and his wife Ann would travel around to different ballparks and go to as many games as they could. For a long time they were Seattle Mariners season-ticket holders. But the strike in 1994 really turned him off. He made a vow to himself that he would never pay to go to another game as long as anybody in the game from that strike was still in baseball and, as far as I know, he stuck with it.

Q: Why did baseball resonate with him, as opposed to other sports?

A: For him, it kept coming back to the idea that the foul lines diverge forever so there is theoretically no place in the world that is not covered by a baseball field … Kinsella said there’s an opportunity for something new every time you watch a baseball game, but hockey and football and tennis are constrained by certain parameters. With baseball, there’s a lot of boredom but there’s always the possibility for something really great.

Q: In the biography, you revisit Kinsella’s meeting with his high school guidance counselor. After learning that Kinsella wanted to become a writer, the counselor suggested he pursue a career path in engineering, accounting or law. Kinsella would later say there was “a special place in hell” for that counselor because he was steering people away from their passions. Did he ever run into that counselor after he became a successful author?

A: No … here was this counselor who was saying, “You can’t really do this as a job, you have to be realistic.” In one of his diaries, in the mid-80s, when he was starting to come into the height of his career, he made a note of that and being told he couldn’t do this and how many years he’d lost, how many books he could’ve written, if not for that bad advice he was given. But, as far as I know, there was never any documentation that Bill ever spoke with him again.

If he won an award or got some sort of accolade he would say, “That must be worth a few hundred ‘I told you so’s’ to all the people who said I couldn’t do this.” He was really a terribly competitive person, with himself and with others. He always wanted to show people that he did deserve the recognition he got.

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While a student at Eastglen High School in Edmonton, Bill Kinsella was discouraged by his guidance counselor from pursuing a writing career, something for which Bill never forgave him … photo courtesy of Shannon Kinsella

Q: Kinsella taught at the University of Calgary in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but he grew to despise academic life and referred to the U of C as “Desolate U” – tell us about his time in Calgary. 

A: Talking with him, even all these years later, he still referred to it as Desolate U. I don’t actually ever recall him referring to it by its proper name. He would talk about the academic drones and after he started teaching there he was teaching classes he felt he was ill-equipped to handle. He was very honest about that and there was some frustration there. Then he was on these committees that he felt were a terrible waste of time.

I remember telling him one time that I had come out of a committee meeting and he said, “Let me give you some advice. If you wear a shirt that blends in to the colour of the wall behind you, you can largely be ignored.”

I think I mentioned in the book that people would come in and ask him about his area of research and when they found out he was “just a fiction writer,” he felt they looked down their noses at him. He always felt slighted in that sense.

But with his creative writing classes, there were some occasions when he had more than 60 students. That’s an incredibly high amount. Most creative writing classes you want to cap at 12 to 15 students. He would actively try to get students to leave his class, which didn’t endear him to the administration.

The year that he left, he was offered tenure and he turned it down. He had saved up enough money to pursue writing and I think it probably worked out well for both him and the university.

Q: You are an English professor at Lipscomb University in Nashville with a lengthy academic background. Were you ever insulted by his views on academic life?

A: I found it funny. We talked about it. I spent my entire career in academics and he couldn’t wait to get out of academics. He claimed to have the heart of a literary critic in a jar on his desk and my degree is in literature and criticism. And he was an actual card-carrying member of the Atheist Society and I teach at a faith-based university. We have so little in common in so many ways, and yet we got along really well.

He does have some good points about the frustrations of teaching – the committee work and the assessments and some of the students probably shouldn’t be in college. But Bill was full of hyperbole and for the sake of a laugh and to drive home a point, he would make things out to be a lot worse than they actually were.

Q: Much of the book examines criticism of Kinsella for cultural appropriation in his aboriginal writings. Some opponents of his work went as far as to call him a racist. Where did you come out on that issue?

A: First of all, my job is not to judge. My job is to let the readers decide, so as far as cultural appropriation goes, I understand the argument. But for me, where do you draw the line? Is Shakespeare allowed to write Hamlet if he’s not Danish? Is he allowed to write Othello? It’s fiction. Bill’s commentary was that in fiction there are no limits.

Saying that, I’m also not part of that First Nations culture. If I were, maybe I’d be singing a different song. But for me it’s fiction and I enjoy the stories. I think they expose some very real problems of life on the reserves and when I read them, I’ve always been struck by how many times he’s pointing out the problems with white culture, who think they have the answers for Indian suffering but really they’re just making problems worse.

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Going the Distance, a 304-page book published by Douglas & McIntyre, is now available in book stores and online. 

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