Biographer William Steele goes the distance with W.P. 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.

Ian Wilson of Alberta Dugout Stories had an hour-long conversation with Steele about Going the Distance. The following is an excerpt of the Q&A from that conversation with Steele about the biography. For the full story, please go to

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 master’s 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.

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: 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.

(This excerpt was printed with permission from Alberta Dugout Stories. To read the full interview please go to or click here. Photo of author William Steele courtesy Kristi Jones.) 

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

Ian Wilson is the co-founder of Alberta Dugout Stories, a website and social media presence devoted to celebrating baseball in the province. He grew up on Medicine Hat Blue Jays baseball, pines for the Pacific Coast League to return to Calgary, and is most happy when watching a game at Seaman Stadium in Okotoks.