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English professor pens bio of famed baseball author

Janel Shoun-Smith  | 

Steele, a Lipscomb alum and professor, has achieved notoriety in the field of baseball literature

The week of Sept. 11, 2016, was a weird one for Lipscomb English professor Willie Steele (’95).

He knew his friend Bill was suffering the long-term effects of diabetes and not likely to recover, but he never expected to get an email from Bill’s daughter letting him know that that Friday would be his last day on earth.

Bill was taking advantage of a new Canadian law allowing him to undergo assisted suicide on Sept. 16. The notice would be a sad and shocking message for anyone, but it was made all the more shocking for Steele due to the fact that he was Bill’s biographer.

Steele’s week started with general concern and ended with phone calls from the Wall Street Journal about the death of W.P. Kinsella, the author of Shoeless Joe (adapted into the 1989 film Field of Dreams) and various other works of baseball fiction.

Kinsella had tapped Steele in 2012 to be his biographer because he had seen a copy of Steele’s 2011 book, A Member of the Local Nine: Baseball Identity in the Fiction of W.P. Kinsella, the most comprehensive work on Kinsella’s work to be published to date.

At the time, Kinsella, known for being something of a curmudgeon, emailed Steele to tell him, in Steele’s words: “I didn’t mess it up too bad.” That was high praise coming from Kinsella, who spent five years teaching at a university and walked away with a lifelong hatred of academia. “You didn’t jump to absurd conclusions like so many academics tend to do,” Kinsella wrote Steele.

The two began a four-year relationship that included Kinsella turning over his diaries spanning 34 years to Steele, an endless stream of interviews with business colleagues, friends and family members, two visits to Kinsella’s homes in British Columbia and countless emails with follow-up questions. The author gave Steele more access to his personal life than any other non-family member alive.

Now several months after Kinsella’s death, Steele is poised to release the first and most comprehensive work on Kinsella’s life ever published.  Steele and his literary agent are currently in talks with interested publishers and hope to have a deal soon.

Steele had no idea when he chose father/son relationships in the novel Shoeless Joe and the film Field of Dreams as the topic for his 1998 master’s thesis that he was setting his academic career on a course that would make him today’s most knowledgeable expert on author W.P. Kinsella.

Steele had always been a big fan of baseball, and he wanted to do his master’s thesis on a topic he would enjoy throughout the process, he said. “I was not that good of a player, so I thought, ‘If I can’t play baseball, I can at least write about it,’” he said.

“Through baseball, you can see many of the substantive changes in our society through the years—religion, gender, race, class and politics. It’s really an interesting way to be able to explore American identity through its national pastime.”

After earning his master’s, Steele taught writing and literature at Cascade College and Oklahoma Christian University, all the while publishing papers and making presentations, more often than not on baseball literature. His 2006 dissertation on Kinsella’s four baseball novels became the 2011 book that Kinsella liked, and Steele has presented numerous times at the Annual Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, the nation’s premier academic conference on baseball literature, held at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

Despite his ornery reputation, Kinsella was quite an agreeable interview subject, Steele said. “He never said no to any question.” His personality had many facets, from cantankerous to generous, said Steele. “His agent called (Kinsella) one of the most complex friends she’s ever had,” he said.

Steele says he didn’t quite know what he was getting into when he agreed to write the biography. The process has been long and more consuming than he ever imagined. Steele has researched all of Kinsella’s writing and his presentations, visited the Canadian National Archives twice and organized boxes and boxes full of Kinsella’s old papers and notes, even old junk mail. He has interviewed Phil Alden Robinson, the director of Field of Dreams; Dwier Brown, who played Ray Kinsella’s father in the movie; and Lawrence Kessenich, Kinsella’s editor for Shoeless Joe.

“Every interview leads to four others, which leads to seven others,” he said. Steele was grateful to be awarded a 2016 Lipscomb Faculty Summer Grant that allowed him to get the bulk of the biography down on paper this past summer, an extra blessing considering Kinsella’s death in September.

Kinsella wanted to be a writer in high school, but he was dissuaded by guidance counselors and didn’t go to college for several years, Steele said. But he kept working toward the goal of writing and wrote and published several fiction works focused on the native tribes of Canada before hitting it big with Shoeless Joe. Throughout his career he published almost 30 books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, which were translated into many languages around the world.

“The most amazing thing about him was his tenacity,” Steele said. “He just kept at it. He was convinced his purpose was to be a writer, and he did it successfully for some years.”

Steele said he also admires Kinsella’s practicality. “’I write to make a living and entertain people,’ he once said.” Kinsella wasn’t really an expert on the game of baseball, Steele said, but once he became connected to the sport in people’s minds, “He was going to mine that vein of gold until it was gone.”

Likewise, Steele said: “I hate writing like an academic, so I hope this biography shows who W.P. Kinsella really was and is entertaining at the same time.”

After Kinsella’s death in September, Steele found himself as a sought-after expert when Kinsella’s literary agent referred media to his biographer for comments on his death. Steele’s name appeared in media throughout Canada and the United States including the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Interest in Kinsella was stirred in 2015 when The Essential W. P. Kinsella was published to honor his 80th birthday, Steele said. In fall 2017, a new collection of Kinsella’s work called Russian Dolls will be released.

Steele says the experience has helped him counsel Lipscomb students who may be struggling with research topics.

“I have students who get frustrated by a research topic because there is little previous research out there. I tell them, ‘Great! Someone has to be the first,’” Steele said. “After this experience, I can help them work through the issues. I understand having to carve a lot of time out for research.  I understand how it feels to see pages of editor’s notes. I tell them, ‘You may be so tired of this topic, but don’t dismiss it. This topic may become your expertise!’”