In August 1976, a 41-year-old Canadian, W.P. (Bill) Kinsella, boarded a bus in Langley, British Columbia, on his way to graduate school somewhere in the whispering farm fields of Iowa. A former restaurant owner, insurance worker, and taxi driver, Kinsella was ready for a new life chapter after years of unfulfilling work and the end of his second marriage.
It wasn’t some mysterious voice that beckoned Kinsella to the University of Iowa and the Writers Workshop, but a persistent dream: to become a professional writer. Over the next two years (1976-1978), this Canadian would live in Iowa City, honing his voice as a storyteller, while quickly falling in love with our state and its “rolling fields of corn, the dense humidity, the tall bamboo canes thick as hoe handles,” as Kinsella once said in an essay for Sports Illustrated.
I had never seen the dazzle of fireflies before. I also loved the intimacy of the Iowa River where it snaked, green and lazy, across the University of Iowa campus. I loved the town, the Prairie Lights bookstore, the small restaurants and the magnificent old homes, one of which Flannery O’Connor lived in when she was a student at the Workshop.
College Green Park Gazebo pictured above. College Green is Iowa City’s oldest remaining city park – planned in 1839.
Renting a room in an old house at 619 N. Johnson St., Kinsella cranked out one short story after another. In spring 1977, he published his first collection of indigenous stories in Canada titled Dance Me Outside, which was a critical success. He also joined a group called the Iowa City Creative Reading Club that met at College Green Park, took poetry and journalism classes, and met his third wife, Ann Knight, in a writing course.
I came to Iowa to study, one of the thousands of faceless students who pass through large universities, but I fell in love with the state. Fell in love with the land, the people, the sky, the cornfields, and Annie. — Ray in Shoeless Joe
(M-0030) During his second year of graduate school, Kinsella began working on a new story inspired by Iowa City, the 1919 Black Sox, and his complicated relationship with his father. It was the story that would change his life—and Iowa—forever. At first, it was simply a lyrical 20-page short story, where Joe Jackson, the infamous White Sox player who was accused of game-fixing in the 1919 World Series, materializes like a phantom ballplayer from the corn.
I wondered, ‘What would happen if Shoeless Joe Jackson came back in this time and place, which was Iowa City in the spring of 1978?’
Kinsella read his short story, titled “Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa” aloud for the first time at the next Iowa City Creative Reading meeting – one week before leaving Iowa City! He’d accepted a teaching position at the University of Calgary that would begin in the fall. The following year, the piece appeared in an anthology of short stories, and an advanced review in Publisher’s Weekly caught the eye of a young editorial assistant named Larry Kessenich at Houghton Mifflin. After reading just a brief synopsis, Kessenich urged Kinsella to turn his short story into a novel. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Three years ago at dusk on a spring evening, when the sky was a robin’s-egg blue and the wind as soft as a day-old chick, I was sitting on the verandah of my farm home in eastern Iowa when a voice very clearly said to me, “If you build it, he will come.” — Ray in Shoeless Joe
Kinsella took that advice, turning his little baseball tale into a 300-page novel in only nine months, and in 1982, Shoeless Joe became a best-selling novel, which, as you know, was then adapted for the big screen in 1989 as Field of Dreams starring Kevin Costner.
Writer Josh O’Leary states it well…
Today, (five years after Kinsella’s death in 2016), both the book and film are revered classics—love letters to Iowa, literature, and baseball. Like Grant Wood’s American Gothic or Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, Kinsella’s fable has become part of Iowa’s cultural heritage.
The American Film Institute named “If you build it, he will come,” as one of its 100 greatest movie quotes. “Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa” remains an unofficial state motto. And to this day, no one with a beating heart can hear Kevin Costner as Ray Kinsella say, “Hey, Dad, want to have a catch?” and not reach for the tissues.
Loren Glass, UI English professor, continues…
Kinsella mythologized Iowa in a way that, if you travel abroad, that and Captain Kirk’s birthplace seem to be the only kinds of literary facts people know about Iowa. He adopted not only Iowa, but Iowa’s indigenous populations, as a way to tell stories about a region and state that have not commonly been the focus of literature.
Nic Ungs, UI director of baseball operations was only nine when a local radio station put out the call for extras and their cars during filming in summer 1988. The day the memorable scene was filmed, Ungs’ parents packed their baseball-loving son and his younger brother into their vehicle to join hundreds of other locals in the car line. That was the start of Ungs’ lifelong connection with the Field of Dreams. Ungs says…
To have a movie filmed in your hometown of 3,500 at the time, it was a big deal. Everyone was eager to be a part of it. I moved away from Iowa, but it always kept me close because guys would say, ‘Oh yeah, I know where that is because of Field of Dreams,’ It was great to have that tie back to where you’re from. Even though you see it a thousand times, it always felt very special. I’m glad we still have the location.
Iowa baseball coach Rick Heller was coaching at Upper Iowa University in Fayette, not far from Dyersville, when the movie was released in 1989. Heller’s teams would stop their bus at the Field of Dreams each year to throw the ball around and soak in the idyllic scene. Heller states…
I have fond memories of what the Field of Dreams represents for Iowa. It’s about the dream, the love of the game, and father-son relationships. The game is something (people) grew up with and is passed down from their grandparents and parents. It’s not as big as it used to be, I’m sad to say, but it’s still there. … It’s a part of (our) culture and part of life.
Iowa softball coach Renee Gillispie, a Danville, Iowa, native, still screens Field of Dreams for her teams each year on bus trips, and comments…
To hear, ‘Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa,’ was the coolest thing for an Iowa kid. It seemed like the first time Iowa was ever mentioned in a movie, besides Radar from M*A*S*H being from Ottumwa. It was a big deal to see Iowa on the big screen.
Finally, for me, your humble guide and long-time Hawkeye – and one who can tear up when anyone even mentions the final scenes of the movie – allow me to share with you the most inspiring speeches I’ve ever taken personally…
News Release – August 9, 2021 – DYERSVILLE, Iowa – The streets of downtown Dyersville are already seeing more traffic as game day approaches Thursday night between The New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox at the Field of Dreams.
On August 12, 2021 – in testament to the story’s lasting hold on our imagination – Major League Baseball hosted its first-ever game at the Field of Dreams movie site outside of Dyersville, Iowa. Two of baseball’s most tradition-steeped teams, the Chicago White Sox – my dad’s favorite team – and New York Yankees – my least favorite team – played in a temporary 8,000-seat ballpark carved out of the cornfields where director Phil Alden Robinson brought W.P. Kinsella’s words to life. Like in the film, cars streamed into the farm from all corners of the country and gathered under the lights on a summer night. One story I saw reported that tickets were selling for $1500-$2000 each!
The game was perfect – ending with a walk-off home run. But the star of the night was Dyersville, Iowa. Is this heaven? No – It’s Iowa! See more pictures here!
Thank you, W.P. Kinsella for coming to Iowa. Your writing skills have touched our lives, rekindled our hopes and dreams, and given us a vision for the future. Godspeed.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
Thank you, so much, to writer Josh O’Leary, who put together many of these autobiographical thoughts about W.P. Kinsella. Read his full article here…