Flashback to when W.P. Kinsella worked magic with Shoeless Joe

The passing of author Bill Kinsella, who died peacefully at 12:05 pm today, swept me back twenty years. I was working as books editor at the Calgary Herald, and wrote a yarn focusing on Kinsella’s breakthrough moment. Others will write the obituaries and fill in the blanks. This is a personal hit that ran Oct. 5, 1996 under the headline Shoeless Joe gave Kinsella his freedom. The story began as follows. . . .

The breakout book. 

That’s what most writers are chasing. 

If the first challenge is to get a book published — no easy task — the second is greater still: to publish that elusive breakout book. 

That’s the one that changes a writer’s life. That enables him to quit teaching English at the University of Calgary, for example, and devote himself to writing full-time. 

Most authors never write a breakout book. But W.P. (Bill) Kinsella published one in 1982: Shoeless Joe. The novel won the prestigious Houghton-Mifflin Award in the U.S., and then became the hit movie Field of Dreams

“It enabled me to stop working for anyone else,” Kinsella said recently. “Since then, all I’ve done is write.” Oops, not completely true: he did teach one semester at the University of Victoria. But let’s face it: that was mainly to hang out with friends like writer-professor W.D. Valgardson. 

Kinsella was in Calgary to promote If Wishes Were Horses, his 22nd book. It’s a wacky fantasy that mixes a bit of baseball with a lot of magic and brings back the heroes of both Shoeless Joe and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. 

As such, it encourages a retrospective approach. Let’s take it from the top. Born in Edmonton in 1935, Kinsella grew up on a bush-farm about 100 kilometres west of the Alberta capital. He didn’t attend school until he was 10. But he caught up. In 1954, he graduated from an Edmonton high school, then did “all sorts of vile things.” He sold real estate and life insurWance and advertising for the yellow pages, managed a retail credit agency, drove a taxi and, after moving in 1967 to Victoria, bought and ran a pizzeria. 

Kinsella had been writing all along, but it wasn’t until the mid-seventies, after he’d picked up a degree in creative writing from the University of Victoria, that he started selling his stories regularly. 

In 1975, he published his first book of “Indian stories,” focusing on fictional Indians living in Hobbema, Alta. Within four years, it had sold 10,000 copies — and now it’s passed the 50,000 mark. It has also been made into a movie. 

Even so, no breakout. Kinsella landed a job at the University of Calgary and began earning his living by teaching English. In 1980, he published a third book of stories: Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes To Iowa. The title story caught the eye of an editor in Boston, who encouraged Kinsella to turn it into a novel. 

“About a third of the way through the book,” Kinsella says now, “I realized something special was happening. I wasn’t surprised by anything that happened after that.” 

What made Shoeless Joe the breakout it became? Kinsella doesn’t hesitate: “Word of mouth.” Originally, the publisher planned to print 10,000 copies in hardcover. The sales representatives loved the book, however, and talked the publisher into printing 25,000. 

Word of mouth led to the movie, and drove the mass-market edition, and sales now are “at least half a million,” Kinsella says, “probably more.” The novel “opened the door of international literature to me,” Kinsella says. “A lot more people bought my books. My backlist sales (previous books) went up. I started doing a lot more public appearances.” 

In Canada, he notes, universities will often pay an author as little as $200 to do a reading. American colleges and universities, by comparison, offer $2,000 or $3,000 — “and I began getting quite a few of those.” 

Kinsella also kept writing steadily. His 22 books (and counting) include seven Hobbema books, seven baseball books (including the new one), and eight books that fit neither category. 

Among his own works, “I like Red Wolf, Red Wolf.” That book of stories is “my favorite of everything I’ve written. There are just some really good stories in there.” 

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