April 07th, 2008
W.P. KINSELLA was born in Edmonton, recipe Alberta in 1935. He passed his first ten years as an only child on a remote homestead near Darwell, Alberta. His bestselling collections of stories about Indians from Alberta's Hobbema reserve are Dance Me Outside (1977), Scars (1978), Born Indian (1981), The Moccasin Telegraph (1983) and The Fencepost Chronicles (1986), for which he earned the Stephen Leacock Medal for humour. His equally popular baseball fictions are two novels, the Houghton Mifflin Prize-winning Shoeless Joe (1982) and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy (1986), and a short story collection, The Thrill of the Grass (1984). Other collections include The Alligator Report (1985), Red Wolf Red Wolf (1987) and shorter works published in limited editions by Vancouver antiquarian bookseller William Hoffer. W. P. (William Patrick) Kinsella lives in White Rock, BC. He was interviewed in 1985 and 1986.
T: Who were Rags and Sigs? KINSELLA: Where did I ever mention that? Rags and Sigs were my imaginary friends when I was around four or five. They were my first fictional characters. I was an only child. I was raised out in the backwoods of Alberta. There weren't any neighbours who had children. So I had all kinds of make-believe playmates. Rags and Sigs were the two that I talked about.
T: Did your parents approve?
KINSELLA: I suppose they had to. I didn't have anybody else to play with! "Go out and play with Rags and Sigs!" It was better than talking to the hogs.
T: And the Star Weekly was your big literary influence?
KINSELLA: That's true. The Star Weekly was the only thing we got. It came every Saturday. I used to devour it. The fiction particularly. I had learned to read by the time I was five. Sometimes I could read it all and sometimes it was too complicated. I remember "Hugh B. Cave" was one of my favourite writers. And I remember a serial called "Wild Lilac." That was my only contact with the outside world, the Star Weekly.
T: Do you re-use the terrain around Lac Ste. Anne where you grew up for your Hobbema stories?
KINSELLA: No, I've never been on the reserve at Lac Ste. Anne. At least not to my knowledge. We were ten miles from it. It might have been ten thousand. We didn't have anything but a horse and buggy for getting around. The home place was very isolated. Forty years this August it's been vacant and nobody's got in there yet to bum it down.
I've never been to Hobbema either. I don't want to go. Because everything I write is fiction. I don't want to be confused by fact.
T: Why did your family move to Edmonton when you were ten?
KINSELLA: Ostensibly so I could go to school. I had taken the first five years by correspondence but my mom didn't feel qualified to teach me anymore. But also I think my parents were sick to death of the farm. They had only gone to the farm because of the Depression.
T: Did you have an adverse reaction to the formal school system?
KINSELLA: I suppose so. I don't suffer fools. And I don't take orders. As immodest as it may sound, it has to do with intelligence. That's why I've always been a lousy employee. I have always worked for people who were only about half as smart as I was. So you automatically become suspect. Stupid people have an innate fear of anyone smarter than they are.
T: What about baseball? Did your dad take you out to the ballpark in Edmonton?
KINSELLA: It was a school friend who introduced me to the Big Four League. I went a few times with him. Mostly I used to go on my own. It was a five-cent bus ride from the East End down to the flats where the baseball park was. My dad talked a lot of baseball. He had played in the minor leagues. He used to drag the St. LOUM Sporting News home once in a while and it was he who told me first about Shoeless Joe Jackson. But I think he only went out to a couple of Sunday afternoon games with me.
T: Have you still got a copy of your first story? The one about a murder in a ballpark?
KINSELLA: That vanished somewhere when I moved from Victoria to Iowa. I would love to have it. That story was written in grade seven. My mom, I think, still has some of my early efforts. She always threatens to drag them out. I was writing all through high school. I always knew that's what I wanted to do.
T: When were you first published in any form?
KINSELLA: I was about eighteen or nineteen. I'd gone to work for the provincial government. I used to get my work done by ten in the morning so I could write the rest of the day. I should have stayed there. I went into private industry after that and I had to work a great deal harder. I wasn't able to do any writing for several years. From '56 to '63, I think it was. My kids were little and I was struggling like hell to keep food on the table. I did some writing in Edmonton in the mid sixties, but it was mostly journalism.
T: Did you ever get deeply discouraged?
KINSELLA: I was too busy to get discouraged. I hated everything I was doing. Then in '67 I left Edmonton.
T: You opened up a pizza parlour in Victoria without ever having cooked a pizza. That strikes me as something Frank Fencepost might have done.
KINSELLA: Frank has a lot of chutzpah and I guess I did too, at the time. But I did know the economics of the business and that's by far the most important part. I had a friend in Edmonton who owned several pizza places. I sat down with him and saw how I could make a living doing it. So I set it up. There was only one other pizza place in Victoria at the time and I'm a real good financial manager. We were successful from the day we opened the doors. But it's funny you should mention that. I have a story half done at the moment about exactly that. It's the first time I've ever written about the restaurant business.
T: What was the first Silas Ermineskin story?
KINSELLA: "Illianna Comes Home," the first story in Dance Me Outside. That was written three or four years before any of the others. It sat around for a couple of years until I took it to Bill Valgardson's class at the University of Victoria. He said,
"You've got something here." Over the next summer I got a couple more ideas so I wrote "Panache," "Horse Collars," "Dance Me Outside," "Caraway," "Linda Star" and a couple of others. I gave them to Billy that fall. He said they were great. That was the start of it all.
T: Because those stories are written in sly pidgin English, the reader hardly notices the amount of crime and violence in them. Do you think those stories could be told without that style?
KINSELLA: I don't think so. But that style is deceptive. I don't actually do that much with the diction. It just appears that I do. And of course Silas is getting more literate as a narrator all the time. The sentences are getting longer and the language is getting clearer.
T: I took an inventory of the subject matter in Dance Me Outside. There's murder, prostitution, child prostitution, racial discrimination, gambling, a lost baby, rape, suicide, drug dealing. ..
KINSELLA: That goes back to Valgardson's Law. "Short stories are not about events but the people that events happen to." The murders happen offstage. The guy is castrated offstage in "Dance Me Outside." the suicide-murder takes place offstage in "Caraway." Those events are peripheral. You have to have conflict of some kind. But it's the people that those events happen to that the stories are about.
T: Do you agree that your stories would be ideal for a television series?
KINSELLA: Yes. It's absolutely inconceivable that these stories have not been bought for television. There are ninety-some stories ready-made. I write visually. And I write very visually intentionally. But the people in television are at least ten years behind the times, probably closer to twenty.
Nothing can be done for a couple of years now because Norman Jewison has the characters tied for a movie deal or for TV.
T: Do you still run into people who assume you are a native Indian?
KINSELLA: Occasionally. Last fall a woman came up from the Lummi Indian Reserve just across the border. She taught at the college and wanted me to come and read. She was flabbergasted when she discovered I wasn't Indian. And also very angry. It used to happen more often. When Dance Me Outside came out I had all kinds of people phoning around Wetaskawin and Hobbema trying to find out where I lived.
T: Do you generally know the ending of your stories before you begin?
KINSELLA: Well, the ideal way for me to write a story is to get a good opening and then somewhere before I've written three or four pages I want to know the ending. And I want to write it. If you've got a good opening and a good closing there's not much more you need. Any journeyman can fill in the middle. It's just a matter of whether it's eight or ten or twenty pages. But sometimes I do start with an ending. The "Black Wampum" story in Scars, for instance.
T: You mention the tradition of deus ex machina in "The Mother's Dance." How often do you directly incorporate Greek traditions? How important is that to you?
KINSELLA: I'm doing much less of that now. I'm not writing anything for the academics to grab hold of.
T: So initially you thought you should appeal to them?
KINSELLA: Oh, sure. Originally I wanted to get a teaching position. I was writing to impress the critics and the snottier little magazines. There's a lot more conscious symbolism in my first books. Now I'm fortunate I don't have to do that anymore. But I still throw in symbols. Or I'll retell a Greek legend somewhere. I still like to make their little wooden hearts beat faster.
T: Why do you have such a hostile attitude towards academics?
KINSELLA: It's so fraudulent. This business of taking a book and applying incredible psychological and sociological and symbolic meanings to it. It's a game. An elaborate mind game. It has no validity at all that I can see.
T: Okay, for instance, let's say I was setting out to examine the role of the Indian in Canadian literature. ..
KINSELLA: You'd have to get off this academic hoopla to do it. I read something in a reputable journal not long ago about Hiebert, this guy who wrote Sarah Rinks. Now if there is anything that is fun reading and harmless, it's Sarah Rinks. But this guy was saying how Hiebert hated the Indians because of some statements he made in Sarah Binks's poems. It's insane!
T: But you can find stupidity everywhere. There are stupid garage mechanics. It doesn't necessarily follow that all garage mechanics are useless.
KINSELLA: Every once in a while there is some good critical work done, but it's very few and far between. Most of the effort is totally wasted. Again, when I see the stuff that's written on my work, it's incredible. It's such pretentious shit. They see things that not only I had no intention of writing in the work, but nobody in their right mind would see.
T: For an atheist you have numerous religious concepts repeated in your work. Redemption, faith, resurrection and even reincarnation.
KINSELLA: Oh, sure. Just because you don't believe in something doesn't mean you don't write about it. I don't believe in the Bible but I read it occasionally and I use biblical references. I have retold biblical stories. We're so inundated with Christian mythology that if you're going to write quality work I think it will probably be an integral part of it. Critics could legitimately write about the religious symbolism in Shoeless Joe. In fact it is taught in religious studies courses in the US.
T: When the Houghton Mifflin editor called and asked you to expand your Shoeless Joe short story into a novel, did you have any qualms about your ability to do it?
KINSELLA: I knew I could write that length. I'd written one unsuccessful novel before. I wrote to him and said I had never written anything successful longer than twenty-five pages. If I was going to do this I wanted to have a good editor working with me. I assumed that would be the last I would hear from him. Most editors don't really want to work with people. They want the finished product on their desk. But Larry Kessenich was right out of editor's school. He was hot to trot and ambitious. He said he'd be happy to work with me.
T: How did you evolve such a strange plot?
KINSELLA: I always knew I was going to write something about J.D. Salinger. And I knew I was going to write something about Moonlight Graham. And also something about Eddie Sissoms. I thought, well, alright, what if I do all this together? I went and reread all of Salinger. I dug up unpublished stories and found a story with Ray Kinsella in it. I thought, this is the entrance to my Salinger material. He's used my character in a story. I'll use his.
T: Was it hard bringing everything together?
KINSELLA: Shoeless Joe was the easiest thing I have ever written. It was just like a baby. It took nine months. And it was virtually not revised at all. About five or six pages were cut, that was all.
T: Have there been any Indians who have played pro ball?
KINSELLA: Allie Reynolds. Chief Bender. Daryl Evans is half Indian…
T: I ask because it seems an obvious idea for a story. Frank Fencepost signs with the Cleveland Indians.
KINSELLA: I've written a story about the Montana Magic. That was a hockey team that the Hobbema Indians actually bought. Afterwards apparently they found out the team was deeply in debt. I took the idea and made the Montana Magic into a baseball team. Frank and Silas end up managing it. And I've written a hockey story recently that I've been doing at readings. Mad Etta ends up playing goal for the Hobbema Wagon burners.
T: If you were commissioner of baseball, what changes would you make?
KINSELLA: I would institute the designated hitter rule in the National League. I would also make them put in grass in the outdoor stadiums like Kansas City. And I loathe mascots. I also object to them playing music. I
would absolutely ban music from the ballpark. They should play ten seconds of, America the Beautiful" and that's it. None of this anthem shit. And I'd make sure whoever has the concession for food at Dodger Stadium was awarded the concessions for all the ballparks.
T: Do Americans have different reactions to your work than Canadians?
KINSELLA: Americans are much more effusive. If they like something they say, “Bigawd, this is good. Let's tell people about it." Canadians, if they like something, say, "Well, I like this. There must be something wrong with it."
T: Certainly there's more of a tradition in American society that anything is possible. There's probably a greater freedom to be imaginative.
KINSELLA: Whereas in Canada we have this goddamned English tradition. And there is no one less imaginative than the English. Our Canadian literature is still dominated by a lot of asshole Englishmen who have the nerve to try and tell us what our literature is about. John Metcalf, of course, is the main offender. The very idea that this man, who has no background in our literature whatsoever, should try to tell us what Canadian literature should be about just makes me absolutely furious. There are ten or fifteen of his ilk floating around.
T: You've married an American and you've described Canada as "a nation of docile and gutless people beset by an accountant mentality." Why don't you move to the US?
KINSELLA: That statement was made specifically in connection to our acceptance of metric conversion. However, I would say that if it wasn't for medical insurance I would likely live in the States. It's a much more exciting place to be. Even the politicians aren't quite so stupid. All politicians are stupid and corrupt but ours are not even corrupt. Bureaucracy is so much worse here than it is in the US.
T: When you say you knocked your head against Canadian literature for twenty-five years, does that mean Canadian literature was at fault for not accepting you?
KINSELLA: No. I think I got published about the time I was ready to be published. That statement just means I didn't have the opportunity to pursue my writing. There's a story I frequently tell about my high-school counselor in grade twelve. I had taken these stupid aptitude test which are easily rigged, of course, so that I was able to rig the test so that I showed a ninety-eight percent in the writing column and zero mechanical aptitude.
Which is pretty close to the truth anyway. His advice to me was that I should get a degree in accounting or engineering and then write for a hobby. That still makes me furious to this day. You tend to take that kind of advice semi-seriously. I actually wasted ten or fifteen years of my life. So there's a special place in hell for him.
T: When you were in a position to advise young writers as a teacher, what did you try to pass on to them besides Valgardson's Law?
KINSELLA: I always say to students that writing consists of ability, imagination, passion and stamina. Ability, of course, is the ability to write complete sentences in clear, standard English.
That usually eliminates seventy to eighty percent of the people who want to write right there. Imagination is having stories to tell, not autobiography. We have a number of writers who do nothing but write autobiography.
T: Norman Levine?
KINSELLA: I can't tolerate his stuff. There is no story, no imagination involved. That is what fiction writing is all about. Imagination. Imagination is my stock in trade. I have to keep coming up with new things. That's my occupation. We are storytellers. Fiction exists to entertain and for no other reason. If you want to write something preachy or autobiographical, you should write non-fiction.
T: Do you sense a prejudice from some quarters that your work is too enjoyable, too entertaining?
KINSELLA: Oh yes. Of course. These snotty academics are not going to give any credit to anything they can understand that doesn't have twelve letter words in it and isn't dull. But the stuff they praise, in the main, is poor. Every once in a while they will take a liking to a good writer, like Alice Munro, but it doesn't happen often enough.
T: Let me make a snotty academic observation. I think one very important reason your stories are so popular is the connecting thread of loyalty to the genuineness of his own people from Silas. It makes even the sad and tragic stories inspiring.
KINSELLA: I've described that as being an attempt to inject some humanity into situations which are inherently lacking in humanity. To give an academic answer to an academic question. I use all the tricks of the trade to make Silas an endearing character because he has to be in order to carry the weight of all the stories.
T: I'd go so far as to say you're not writing about Indians and whites. You're writing about those who are willing to be true to their hearts and those in the majority who can't or won't be true.
KINSELLA: I write about people who just happen to be Indians. It's the oppressed and the oppressor that I write about. The way that oppressed people survive is by making fun of the people who oppress them. That is essentially what my Indian stories are all about. Silas and his friends understand the absurdity of the world around them. They survive by making fun of the bureaucrats and the dogooders and the churches and all these idiots who have absolutely no idea what is going on in the world but who are in positions of power. Nine out of ten people in positions of power are hopelessly incompetent. It's that one person out of ten that keeps the country running. Silas sees the absurdity of all this. And that's what I have always done. I know the mentality of the oppressed minority. As a writer I am certainly an oppressed minority.
T: Really? Don't you think that is rather a privileged minority to be in? To live the life of a writer?
KINSELLA: For whom? The twelve of us in this country who make a good living from our writing?
T: So you're looking at being oppressed in strictly economic terms.
KINSELLA: Are there any other?
T: But you and Silas are certainly not one and the same person.
KINSELLA: No, Silas is not nearly as bitter as I am. He's not nearly as angry either. Consequently he keeps it fun. Whereas I would like to be out there with a machine gun.
Essay Date: 1985