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W.P. Kinsella’s famous novel keeps going the distance

One-time White Rock resident’s Shoeless Joe novel continues to draw fans
Chicago White Sox pitcher Lance Lynn warms up in the outfield before Major League Baseball’s Field of Dreams Game last August. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

This story originally appeared in the winter edition of Indulge magazine, a twice-a-year publication published by Peace Arch News.

Author W.P. Kinsella’s presence always had a way of lingering longer than the man himself.

The one-time White Rock resident – who moved from the Semiahmoo Peninsula to a century-old house in the Fraser Canyon in the late 1990s – once told Black Press Media that the reason people think he still lives in the seaside city is a result of poorly-researched online biographies, with his spouse, Barbara Turner Kinsella, adding that “people still think Bill is sitting here in his apartment over Cosmos Restaurant, tapping away at his 1957 Royal typewriter.”

Kinsella – who passed away in 2016 at the age of 81, ending his own life under Canada’s doctor-assisted death legislation – has a literary legacy that has endured longer than the man himself, too.

The author of dozens of books – a collection of short stories called Dance Me Outside and the Iowa Baseball Confederacy among them – the prolific writer, known to family and friends as Bill, is most well-known for writing Shoeless Joe, which was turned into the blockbuster movie Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner, Ray Liotta and James Earl Jones.

The film’s popularity hasn’t waned since its release in 1989, and this past summer, the movie – and in turn, Kinsella – was thrust back into the spotlight when Major League Baseball held its first-ever Field of Dreams Game, in which the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees squared off in a regular-season game in Dyersville, Iowa, which was the site of the original film.

More than 7,800 fans packed the small stadium, and the game was the most-watched Major League Baseball regular-season game since 2005, proving true the movie’s famous line – if you build it, they will come.

The game itself featured a pre-game ceremony in which the Major League players emerged from a cornfield – just as the ghost players did in Kinsella’s source material. Costner, too, was on hand to participate in the festivities.

The game was a such a hit for Major League Baseball that there are plans to hold games there annually, cementing even further Kinsella’s legacy and connection to the sport he so often wrote about.

“I think the reception that this event has received has been so positive that we will be back,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a press conference after the Aug. 12 game.

“It’s just been so successful that it’s hard not to take the opportunity to do it again.”

Closer to home, Kinsella’s longtime literary agent, Carolyn Swayze – a Surrey resident – was busy in the run-up to the Field of Dreams game.

“I was in the midst of negotiating a deal for a TV series based on the novel and film,” she told Black Press Media, noting that the series, for NBC’s Peacock streaming service, is to be helmed by Mike Schur, who has been behind such NBC hits as Parks and Recreation, The Good Place and Brooklyn 99.

Swayze was also able to hit another home run for Kinsella’s family, scoring tickets to the Field of Dreams game for his daughter, Shannon, and her husband.

“They all had a fabulous time and had no doubt that Bill would have been thrilled with the game and the hoopla,” Swayze said.

Swayze, who years ago gave up practising law in order to become a literary agent at the behest of Kinsella, her longtime friend, was also quick to note the similarities between the game and scenes from the movie itself.

“The Iowa sky was as beautiful that night as it was in the film,” she said. “It really was a magical time.”

Though there are myriad differences between Kinsella’s book and the movie – James Earl Jones plays fictional author Terence Mann, for example, whereas in the book the role is filled by real-life author and noted recluse J.D. Salinger – Kinsella was never concerned with changes that movie producers made when adapting his work for the screen, once telling Black Press Media that once they paid him, they were free to do as they wish.

In his later years, Kinsella was not as prolific a writer as he had once been – something he attributed to being hit by a car in White Rock in 1997. The accident – which he discussed in detail in Saturday Night magazine in September 1999 – left him without his senses of taste and smell, and also zapped him of energy and his ability to write or concentrate for long stretches.

“I was just so incredibly tired. For weeks and months I had no energy whatsoever,” he told Saturday Night, adding that he turned from a ‘Type A’ personality into a quieter, more subdued ‘Type B’ after the accident.

“I had no interest in anything.”

Though he eventually did begin writing again, his career will no doubt continue to be defined by Field of Dreams – something he never seemed too upset by, joking to The Province newspaper once that “I’ve written a novel that was very successful and I have been able to ride on its coattails for 20 years.”

He does quibble with one thing though – the idea that his most famous novel is about baseball.

Shoeless Joe, he explained to the The Province in 2000, “is not a sports story. It is a love story that is peripherally about baseball. There is also this father-son business, which, from the mail I get, interests a lot of people.”

In the film, Costner’s character yearns to “have a catch” with his father, who is deceased but (spoiler alert) returns to his son through the cornfield outfield fence, alongside a bevy of famous but long-dead ballplayers, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, who was banned from baseball after being part of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, in which players were accused of taking part in a conspiracy to fix the World Series in exchange for money from a gambling syndicate.

At this year’s Field of Dreams game, Costner himself mentioned that the film’s father-son angle is what continues to resonate with people so many years later.

“I know people get to the end of this movie and they just somehow wilt,” Costner said.

“And I don’t know why that is, but I do know a lot of it is about the things that go unsaid between us and our fathers and mothers that we wish we could take back. And somewhere along the line, if you have some unfinished business, that movie starts to take over and that’s maybe why you go to that place.”

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