W.P. Kinsella Interview #2
August 07th, 2012
Averaging more than a book per year for the past 20 years, W.P. Kinsella has at least four manuscripts waiting in the dugout, abortion ready to hit the stores.
A Broadway musical version of Shoeless Joe is in the works and Hollywood is planning a film version of If Wishes Were Horses starring George Clooney. Most widely known for his baseball fiction, Kinsella also has a new paperback version of If Wishes Were Horses available this spring, plus he’s edited a new collection of baseball anecdotes called Diamonds Forever (HarperCollins).
BCBW talked to the one-man industry just before he left to vacation in Cuba with author Evelyn Lau. For a guy north of 60, raised on a remote Alberta homestead as an only child, he continues to field his dreams.
As usual, Kinsella was not shy about speaking his mind.
BCBW: Do you think you can rightly be described as Western Canada’s Most Successful Author?
KINSELLA: I suppose I am. I can’t offhand think of anybody who has probably sold more books than I have.
BCBW: How do you view the current state of the book industry?
KINSELLA: The publishing industry is in terrible shape as far as authors are concerned. There are more books beings published and more books being sold than ever before but the mid-list author like myself is dead. Especially in the US the conglomerates own the publishing companies. They don’t want to look at the book; they don’t want to look at the manuscript. They just say, “Is it going to sell a million copies?” and if it isn’t they don’t want to see it. My last major novel in the US was with Ballantine and it did really well. It sold 65,000 copies hardcover. When the next book came along, not only did they turn it down, they didn’t want to read it.
BCBW: But if there’s a movie connection…
KINSELLA: That’s right. As soon as If Wishes Were Horses was optioned for the movies, my agent suddenly gets a call from Ballantine saying “How come you didn’t show it to us?”
BCBW: You description of yourself as a “mid-list” author is sobering.
KINSELLA: In the US I’m a mid-list author. I can’t play with Stephen King and Judith Krantz.
BCBW: Balzac and Dickens used to unabashedly write to make a buck. Is that still your chief motivation?
KINSELLA: It has been and it always will be. I’m an entertainer. I’m there to tell stories. But if it doesn’t make a buck, I’m not interested.
BCBW: Are you still working two days on, one day off?
KINSELLA: I try to. I’m not writing as much as I was. I don’t have the terrible sense of urgency that I had ten books ago. At the moment I’m looking more towards the movies. You spend a year-and-a-half writing a novel and you get a lousy $15,000 or $20,000 advance for it. One movie option will give you ten times that.
BCBW: When you met Dave Henderson of the Oakland A’s, he was surprised you made only $250,000 for Shoeless Joe.
KINSELLA: It was an average deal for the time. But with ball players, even the bad ones make two or three million dollars a year.
BCBW: Do you fraternize much with ball players?
KINSELLA: No. Most of them don’t have a clue who I am. They know Field of Dreams if someone reminds them. I don’t spend time with baseball players.
BCBW: Do you have a favourite player?
KINSELLA: Ken Griffey, I supposed.
BCBW: Do the Mariners have a chance this year?
KINSELLA: If Randy Johnson’s back is okay. They would have won by a mile last year if Johnson’s back hadn’t given out.
BCBW: With four books in the cam, maybe you could adopt a pseudonym to get the backlog published?
KINSELLA: I have often thought of that. Except my style is so recognizable. I have a little mystery novel that I may do that with. It’s quite good but because I’m not known in that genre, nobody wants it. I’ve had it optioned twice for TV movies but they both died in pre-production.
BCBW: Have you tried screenplays?
KINSELLA: I haven’t done much. I did a movie for the CBC with died in pre-production. But the genre doesn’t appeal to me very much. It’s the difference between a plumber and a carpenter. Each one knows what the other one does but they don’t understand the fine points of the trade. I don’t understand the fine points of screenwriting. I’d have to work with somebody for a while and I’ve never had the opportunity to do that. My Hollywood guy says there’s so much money around for movies, he wants me to write something and he’ll get a ton of money for it.
BCBW: When we talked 12 years ago, you said it was inconceivable that all your Hobbema Indian stories hadn’t been adapted for a TV series. Norman Jewison had the rights at the time. What’s the update?
KINSELLA: It’s still a total loss. They eventually made the movies [Dance Me Outside] which wasn’t very good. The financial deal on that was terrible. Then they made six episodes of the TV series. That was the worst imaginable. I think I got $150 an episode or something. I didn’t watch the TV series. I heard it was absolutely, pitifully awful.
BCBW: Did they have access to all the storylines in Dance Me Outside?
KINSELLA: Yes. They used parts of three stories in the movie. Apparently the TV series didn’t use any of them. I guess they were too cheap to buy some of my really good stories for television.
BCBW: You had the big budget American movie Shoeless Joe and you had the low budget Canadian “film” Dance Me Outside. Can you draw any parallels?
KINSELLA: The Canadian film industry is still in the fledgling state! [Laughter] They have never made a film that made money. There are too many people involved who work for CBC.
BCBW: Conversely were you impressed by the Americans?
KINSELLA: They did a wonderful job on the screenplay. I had tears in my eyes when I read the screenplay and it was my own story. The screenwriter managed to direct the movie. I don’t know who he had to kill but the screenplay didn’t get changed. Usually someone would come in and say, “Well, this is a great screenplay but it’s not the way I see it. We need a car chase here… some sex here…” and there it goes.
BCBW: How close is Shoeless Joe to becoming a musical?
KINSELLA: Well, these guys talk a good game. When I see it on stage, I’ll believe it. Musical theatre is the toughest entertainment market there is. It can die in one performance. They’re still trying to find angels to back it. It will depend on how much cachet Field of Dreams still has. In the movies, they pay you up front. I don’t care if they turn out Halloween 12. As long as I get enough money to live well. But in order to make money from the musical, it will have to be a success.
BCBW: Do you agree that much of Canadian literature in the 70s and 80s tried to be “above” commercialism because it was so closely aligned with universities?
KINSELLA: That’s a good statement, you can put that in quotes and say I said it! [Laughter] They have had no interest in readability whatsoever. Twelve years ago when we talked I knew everybody in the business, read all the lit magazines, kept up on everything. I haven’t read a lit magazine in six or seven years. I’m woefully ignorant of who’s writing now. The only thing I’ve read recently was a galley of Traplines [by Eden Robinson] which I thought was absolutely dreadful. Mediocre writing. Unpleasant stories. I was amazed it got the critical acclaim it did.
BCBW: Supposedly there’s a post-NAFTA “internationalization” of cultural production in Canada. By necessity, one must relate to a larger market.
KINSELLA: I was doing that 20 years ago. Everything I’ve written has been for the larger market, not for Canadian literature. Even when I was 20 years old and writing my first stories, I could never see the point of writing for a miniscule Canadian market. I’ve never been able to crack the international market because my work is too North American. Except for Japan. Whereas Evelyn [Lau] has been able to crack the European market. And she sells more books in Australia than she does in Canada. She’s on bestseller lists in Australia but here she doesn’t get much attention, except for Runaway. I’ve had books in Great Britain which I think sold about 50 copies each.
BCBW: Are you troubled by the fact that you’re a mid-list author?
KINSELLA: No, I know my place. I can’t write like Stephen King or Judith Krantz or Danielle Steel. Would that I could. Everything I write has figurative language and humour. Most of these successful writers don’t have any kind of humour. Stpehen King sometimes is tongue-in-cheek but the word humour is not in the others’ vocabulary.
BCBW: Perhaps the nuances of humour simply don’t translate well into other languages?
KINSELLA: I don’t know
BCBW: I liked your criterion for success when we first met in 1985. You just wanted to have enough money so you could always afford to go out for dinner.
KINSELLA: I eat out about 80% of the time. My update is that I want a roof over my head, enough money to eat out, and enough money to take two or three holidays a year. [Laughter]
BCBW: You’ve said your life is quite ordinary but your agent confirms that you and Evelyn [Lau] are officially an item. Many people would find that “not ordinary”.
KINSELLA: Well, my life has been a bit of a soap opera the last two or three years. I suppose people would be curious in terms of our age difference, I don’t know where the line is drawn. It is 20 years? 25 years? If I was 40 and Evelyn was 25, no one would think a thing about it.
BCBW: Evelyn writes about sexuality which is still almost taboo in Canada. Your works are commercially successful and that’s almost taboo in Canada. Do you two talk about that?
KINSELLA: Yeh. I think that’s one of the things that brought us together. I’m one of the few people that share her view that most of the people who are writing are pretentious bastards. We don’t have time for them. We’re interested in making a living. The others are slurping at the public trough, via the universities or grants, and have no interest in entertaining an audience. They’re more interested in writing unfathomable material that will get a good review in an obscure literary magazine that sells 27 copies.
BCBW: Do you and Evelyn reach other’s work in progress?
KINSELLA: I have read the occasional story but we don’t make a policy of it, we don’t edit each other’s work.
BCBW: You contributed an autobiographical piece to an Orca anthology about first sexual experiences. Why haven’t you dealt more frankly with sex in your stories?
KINSELLA: I haven’t put a lot of sex in, it’s true. But the new novel [If Wishes Were Horses] has a lot of sex in it. A guy told me I have more sex in it than my previous 20 books combined.
BCBW: Do you wonder or care if there’s a public perception of who you are?
KINSELLA: No, I don’t care about that. So few people know authors personally. If I were to walk from Duthie’s to Bollum’s eight hours a day, I would probably get recognized three or four time. Essentially you’re anonymous. Evelyn and I walk up and down Granville St and Robson St all the time and I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone say, “Hey, are you the famous authors?”
BCBW: Who’ve you been compared to besides Wild Bill Cody?
KINSELLA: Colonel Sanders. Buffalo Bill Cody. Wild Bill Hickock. All tress of those. And Mark Twain in the US.
BCBW: You’ve voices animosity towards people in print from time to time, such as the novelist Rudy Wiebe or the editor John Metcalf or the Sun journalist Doug Todd. Do you ever regret these literary dust-ups?
KINSELLA: No. Everything sells books. When that idiot Rudy Wiebe attacked my work, he was so out-of-touch with reality that he did it in the second week of November. So I sold something like 20,000 copies of my books just before Christmas. It was a great gift. Metcalf must have crawled back under his rock. I haven’t heard anything of him for years.
BCBW: You once said most of the academic stuff which was written about your books is “pretentious shit”. When a new book comes out, do you give a dame about what kind of press you receive?
KINSELLA: Well, yeh, because you want to project a relatively positive image. I’m always nice to journalists. I always make myself available. Even for this baseball book which I edited which I have no reason to do publicity for because I got paid up-front, I still do all sorts of phone interviews. People don’t remember seven days later what they read in a review; they will simply remember they read a review. But I’ve been very lucky. Reviews have been about 90% positive over the years.
BCBW: You’re being nice to me because I’m a journalist?
KINSELLA: No, I enjoy doing interviews. But if you write a nasty piece about me I’ll vilify you all over the Lower Mainland. [Laughter]
BCBW: Using your mindset, I’d say, “Good. Bill Kinsella is saying nasty things about me. That’s good publicity.” [Laughter]
KINSELLA: I hope I didn’t do that for Douglas Todd.
BCBW: You were reviewing fiction for the Vancouver Sun for a while. What happened?
KINSELLA: They changed their format. They don’t have any editors there. They used to just absolutely mangle that column. I would have to clip the column, get my own copy and send it to some publisher so the author would eventually get to see what I had intended to say about their book.
BCBW: Was someone at Pacific Press presuming they could write better than W.P. Kinsella?
KINSELLA: It was never re-writing. It was cutting. And they could never get a title right. I would write “The Preacher’s Son” and they would write “The Minister’s Son”.
BCBW: Maybe it was a style guide issue. Fisher versus fisherman.
KINSELLA: I have no idea. It was just an embarrassment so many times to see what came out in the paper.
BCBW: You’ve said you consider “The Thrill of the Grass” to be one of your best stories. Do you rank your own books?
KINSELLA: I suppose Red Wolf Red Wolf is my favourite. Some of my best stories are in there. I also like The Winter Helen Dropped By as a novel.
BCBW: Edward Albee said there are two things that can ruin an artist: success and failure. Have you paid the price for success?
KINSELLA: Yeh. The hangers-on always want a piece of what you’re doing. They want you to do this charity and that charity. You have a lot of claims on your time. A lot of writers also get involved in the social scene. That’s ruined more authors than anything else. I don’t do that.
BCBW: Another price of success is the perception that you only write stories about baseball and Indians.
KINSELLA: That’s right. The other books just don’t sell as many copies. There’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t stand on the street and a cannon and kidnap people and force them to read your books – which wouldn’t be a bad idea, actually. Take BC Place hostage one night, run the rock group out and make everyone buy a book in order to get out.
BCBW: You took books to your 25th high school reunion and sold them there. Would you still do that today?
BCBW: Are you aware that most people would consider that odd? That I consider it off?
KINSELLA: Any crowd of any more than ten people, I always carry books with me. I love to embarrass people. You’re at a social event and they say, “Oh, I must get your latest book!” And you say, “I just happen to have a copy with me.” [Laughter] it sure shuts them up.
BCBW: Is self-promotion one of the many things you picked up from WD Valgardson?
KINSELLA: Oh, yeh. As George Bowering says, “There isn’t a shopping mall in Canada where you can’t find either Bill Kinsella or Bill Valgardson selling their books.”
BCBW: You’ve been somewhat critical of Creative Writing faculties and yet you obviously benefitted tremendously from having Bill Valgardson as your teacher at UVic.
KINSELLA: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing programs expet they should have definite qualifications to get in. There are always too many people in them who have no talent and they waste the time of the people who do. I’ve been critical of the Iowa Workshop. They were too laid back. They didn’t require you to do a lot of work. If I was a teacher of a graduate course in fiction my students would be reading all the literary magazines and writing a story a week or they’d be on the road. But I think UVic does a good job. I give them money all the time. I taught a semester at UVic a few years ago. You can’t teach much writing but you can point the students in the right direction and help them with things like marketing and graduate school and grants.
BCBW: Do you have any views about the education system in general?
KINSELLA: I think the education system does a really good job but they should segregate the stupid from the bright. A third of your students are going to be too dumb to learn anything anyway. Why bother with them? That has always been the way. All the reading is done by 25-30% of the population. Another 50% of the population is somewhere in-between; they are marginally literate. The bottom 25-30% are functionally illiterate. There’s nothing you can do for them. Because they’re stupid.
BCBW: Living part-time in Palm Springs, you must be plugged into American society. Is America improving under Clinton?
KINSELLA: I don’t pay that much attention to it. It seems to me it’s more like Canada than Canada because it doesn’t matter who’s in power, they run down the middle of the road. I can’t see any difference between Reagan and Clinton. In actually policy Reagan claimed all sorts of right-wing views and he never implemented any of them; Clinton claims all sorts of left-wing views and he doesn’t implement any of them. People could elect Garfield as president and it wouldn’t make any difference. It’s the same in Canada. The Liberals have simply continued the Conservative policies.
BCBW: You support the Reform Part. Do you think Preston Manning has been unable to increase his popularity because he has an agenda that truly isn’t middle-of-the-road?
KINSELLA: Certainly in the east. Ontario is the stumbling block. Canada generally wants middle-of-the-road, don’t-bother-me government. When it comes down to it, nobody does anything. I suppose the Conservatives will eventually make a comeback and become the Opposition again. The Reform and the NDP will tag along with their ten percent each.
BCBW: I know you’ve been involved in a Reform ad. Do you have access to Preston Manning?
KINSELLA: I could if I wanted to. I’ve had dinner with him.
BCBW: Has he read any of your books?
KINSELLA: Probably not.
BCBW: You’ve switched to a new agent in BC. Why did you want Carolyn Swayze to represent you?
KINSELLA: I watched her when she started her agency. She seemed to be doing a job for her clients and she’s a wonderful person. Some agents are very abrasive and I couldn’t stand that at all. Evelyn’s agent is very abrasive. She makes Evelyn cry.
BCBW: Are there some Canadian writers you admire?
KINSELLA: Alice Munro. I keep up with her work. And I intend to get a book called Mr. Sandman by Barbara Gowdy. I just read a review in PW [Publisher’s Weekly] that just raved about it.
BCBW: What about The English Patient?
KINSELLA: I’m told it’s impenetrable. I haven’t tried to read it.
BCBW: Do you feel there’s a disadvantage to not living in eastern Canada?
KINSELLA: Oh, I think so. I’ll never get a GG [Governor General’s Awars] here in Canada. I’ve hacked off too many academic toes. You have to suck up to the right parties. I’d like to have a big market exposure but I’m not willing to suffer the horrible climate in order to get it. I don’t want to live in Toronto.
Essay Date: 1997