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Author W.P. Kinsella, circa April 7, 1987. Mr. Kinsella died Friday after a long and prolific career as a writer and teacher.
Author W.P. Kinsella, circa April 7, 1987. Mr. Kinsella died Friday after a long and prolific career as a writer and teacher.

Shoeless Joe author W.P. Kinsella saw baseball as a metaphor for life Add to ...

Three paragraphs in, there it is: W.P. Kinsella’s most famous sentence, and no doubt the most misquoted line of his writing career as well. “If you build it, he will come.”

The he (not “they”) referred to in the instruction was Shoeless Joe Jackson, the baseball star disgraced for allegedly throwing the 1919 World Series and the eponymous hero of Mr. Kinsella’s seminal novel, Shoeless Joe.

The novel, about a struggling Iowa farmer who hears a voice telling him to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his corn field, was adapted for film as Field of Dreams – a critically acclaimed blockbuster that made the already beloved novel a sensation.

For Mr. Kinsella, baseball wasn’t simply a game – it was poetry, and a metaphor for life.

“He always said with baseball, anything’s possible,” says Willie Steele, Mr. Kinsella’s biographer. “There’s no clock. You can play an infinite number of innings until somebody wins. There’s no limit to how far somebody can hit a ball, there’s no limit to how far somebody can throw a ball, it’s endless possibilities. And I think when you look at his baseball fiction, that’s what it is. His question he would ask as a writer was: What if? What if Shoeless Joe Jackson comes back from the dead? … And when you start asking that ‘what if’ question, anything’s possible.”

Mr. Kinsella died Friday afternoon in Hope, B.C. It was an assisted death, under the provisions of Bill C-14. He was 81.

One of the Kinsella quotes that Prof. Steele couldn’t stop thinking about on Friday was from Shoeless Joe – a line the J.D. Salinger character says to farmer Ray Kinsella: “If I had my life to live over again, I’d take more chances. I’d want more passion in my life. Less fear and more passion, more risk. Even if you fail, you’ve still taken a risk.”

William Patrick Kinsella was born in Edmonton on May 25, 1935, and raised on a farm near Darwell, west of Edmonton, where he was home-schooled by his mother. His father, a plastering contractor, had played minor league baseball but young Bill did not play himself until the family moved to Edmonton when he was 10.

At 14 he won a YMCA contest with Diamond Doom, a two-page story about a murder weapon hidden under the turf in a baseball stadium. The story was lost in one of the family moves.

Mr. Kinsella received his bachelor of arts in creative writing at the University of Victoria the same year he turned 39. His professor W.D. (Bill) Valgardson offered a crucial piece of advice: “He told him you’re warming up for two pages before you get to the story and you’re sticking around for about two pages too long,” says Prof. Steele, who teaches English at Lipscomb University in Nashville. “And Bill Kinsella went back and started editing his stories with that in mind and immediately started selling everything he was writing.”

Prof. Valgardson had attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and recommended his student do the same. Mr. Kinsella received his master’s degree from the University of Iowa and accepted a teaching position at the University of Calgary.

Vancouver-based author Zsuzsi Gartner was in his class; so was Ronald Wright. It was the first creative writing class Ms. Gartner ever took, and her professor left an impression.

“Kinsella hated Calgary, I think, and probably hated teaching. He wasn’t very good at it, at any rate,” she wrote in an e-mail from Cork, Ireland, where she is on a fellowship. “But I do remember very clearly how passionate he was about the writers he loved and he had a lovely, soft, lilting reading voice that he would apply to pages from Anne Tyler or John Irving while padding back and forth as if wearing moccasins and slightly bobbing to the rhythm of the sentences.”

The success of Shoeless Joe allowed Mr. Kinsella to quit that day job, leave academia – and Calgary. He moved to White Rock, B.C., and wrote full time. He also lived in Vancouver. Later, he moved to more remote Yale, B.C.

Shoeless Joe was published in 1982, winning awards and acclaim. “W.P. Kinsella was born for fiction, or at least for this book,” began a New York Times review. And later, this line: “Mr. Kinsella is drunk on complementary elixirs, literature and baseball, and the cocktail he mixes of the two is a lyrical, seductive and altogether winning concoction.”

Mr. Kinsella published nearly 30 books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry in his career but he was best known for Shoeless Joe – especially after the film was adapted for film as Field of Dreams. The author loved it.

“The first time he read the script, it actually caused him to tear up, he thought it was so beautifully written,” says Prof. Steele, who read the account in Mr. Kinsella’s diary a few weeks ago. “And when he saw the film, he teared up again, watching his own work up on the screen.”

A short story by Mr. Kinsella, Lieberman in Love, was the basis for a film of the same name, which won the 1996 Academy Award for best short subject.

Even with his success, Mr. Kinsella was always a hustler – showing up at his 30th high school reunion with a stack of books in his trunk to sell; there were books for sale at his 80th birthday party last year, as well (this time as a fundraiser).

Prof. Steele says Mr. Kinsella was always an entrepreneur; when he was young, he would buy up old bicycle frames, put new paint on them and flip the bikes at a profit. Later, he opened a pizza place with his second wife. “He had never made a pizza until the day that they opened,” says Prof. Steele. “The moxie this guy had was something else.”

Other odd jobs he had on the way to full time writing included driving a taxi and selling insurance.

Mr. Kinsella was married four times. Three of his marriages ended in divorce. His fourth wife, Barbara Kinsella (née Turner), died on Christmas Eve, 2012.

He was also in a relationship with the writer and poet Evelyn Lau; he famously sued for libel after she wrote a piece about their relationship, which was published in Vancouver magazine. They settled out of court.

In 1997, the same year the article was published, Mr. Kinsella was hit by a car while walking on a sidewalk. He suffered a head injury.

Mr. Kinsella loved the Toronto Blue Jays and the Seattle Mariners. He also loved the DH rule. He was anti-artificial turf. And he was a card-carrying scout for the Atlanta Braves in the late 1980s and early 90s.

He was an online Scrabble junkie, a staunch atheist and an outspoken critic of academia.

So it was a surprise to Prof. Steele – an academic at a Christian college – when Mr. Kinsella asked if he would be interested in writing his biography. Prof. Steele hopes to have it published next year. (He wrote his master’s thesis and PhD dissertation about Mr. Kinsella’s literature. The latter was later published as A Member of the Local Nine: Baseball and Identity in the Fiction of W.P. Kinsella.)

Mr. Kinsella’s last work of fiction, Russian Dolls, is a collection of stories nested within one another and set in Vancouver. The book is to be published in November (moved up from 2017 as a result of Mr. Kinsella’s death) by Saskatchewan non-profit literary publisher Coteau Books.

“We were very, very excited to get this manuscript from W.P. Kinsella and now with [his death], it gives the whole project a different and a very special meaning,” Coteau publisher John Agnew says.

“This is a loss for Canadian literature and literature at large,” Mr. Agnew continues. “While he’ll always be remembered for Shoeless Joe, the first book I remember reading of his was Dance Me Outside. … I know the book was controversial for voice appropriation, but for a kid growing up in downtown Toronto it was quite a revelation.”

When asked if Mr. Kinsella was hurt by the charges of cultural appropriation (particularly in response to his “Indian” stories), Prof. Steele said he didn’t think so; that in fact the publicity helped him sell books.

Mr. Kinsella received numerous awards and honours including the Canadian Authors Association Prize, the Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship, the Order of B.C., the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award and the Leacock Medal for Humour.

“He was a dedicated storyteller, performer, curmudgeon, an irascible and difficult man,” says his literary agent Carolyn Swayze in a statement. “His fiction has made people laugh, cry, and think for decades and will do so for decades to come. Not a week has passed in the last 22 years, without receiving a note of appreciation for Bill’s stories. His contribution … will endure.”

In 1993 he was named to the Order of Canada. “He has attained international stature as an author of stories about people who pursue their dreams, despite the failures and foibles they must struggle to overcome,” the citation stated, adding that “if you build it, he will come” – had become part of North American culture.

In 2001, Mr. Kinsella wrote an essay for The Globe and Mail about what it takes to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame – and advocating for the inclusion of his most famous character.

“If you go to Cooperstown, you’ll read about Shoeless Joe, his flawless fielding, his scalding batting average, even his great performance in the 1919 World Series, the series he allegedly help throw; if you visit the Hall of Fame’s website you can see his glove,” Mr. Kinsella wrote. “That he’s not among the 187 former players whose bronze plaques hang in the Hall is wrong. What more can I say?”

In 2011 Mr. Kinsella won the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s Jack Graney Award for Shoeless Joe. The award recognizes a significant contribution to the game of baseball in Canada through a life’s work or a singular outstanding achievement.

“I wrote it 30 years ago, and the fact that people are still discovering it makes me proud,” he said in a statement at the time. “It looks like it will stand the test of time.”

On Sept. 7, Mr. Kinsella, who had lived with diabetes for years, sent Prof. Steele an e-mail saying he wouldn’t be coming out of the hospital; that he probably had about a month to live, and urging him to send any outstanding questions he had for his biography. Last week, Prof. Steele received another e-mail, informing him that Mr. Kinsella was “scheduled to leave the earth Friday morning.”

One of the questions Prof. Steele had sent was: How do you see your legacy? Mr. Kinsella responded, in part, with this line: “I’m a storyteller; my greatest satisfaction comes from making people laugh and also leaving them with a tear in the corner of their eye.”

W.P. Kinsella leaves his daughters, Erin and Shannon Kinsella, stepchildren, Scarlet and Aaron Gaffney and Lyn Calendar; grandchildren, Dennis Christopher Gane, Jason Kirk Kinsella, Kurtis William Kinsella and Max Knight Kinsella; and his best friends, Lee and Maggie Harwood. In accordance with his wishes, there will be no memorial service.

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