Where it began: 'Shoeless Joe'

April 21, 2014, 2:51 PM

— -- The book came first. Actually, the story came first. I wrote a 20-page short story that eventually became Chapter 1 of my novel "Shoeless Joe." The story was published in an anthology, and a young editor at the publishing house Houghton Mifflin in Boston, Larry Kessenich, read not the story but a review of the anthology in Publishers Weekly. On the strength of that, he wrote to me at Desolate U. in Alberta, where I was teaching bonehead English, to suggest that if the story was part of a novel, he wanted to see it, and if it wasn't, it should be.

I wrote back to say I would need guidance, as I had published four collections of short stories but had never written a publishable novel. We worked well together, and "Shoeless Joe" was just like a baby -- it took nine months. I wrote it under the title "The Kidnapping of J.D. Salinger." Houghton Mifflin chose the title "Shoeless Joe," though they considered "Dreamfield." When finished, it was awarded the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship and was published in 1982.

"Shoeless Joe" was optioned by a small independent movie company that kept it in development for two years before the option expired. Paramount Pictures then optioned it and hired Phil Alden Robinson to write the screenplay. Phil was absolutely in love with my book and kept in touch all through the adaptation -- though I had no input, nor would I have wanted any. Phil explained that there was no way to fit a 300-page novel into an hour-and-40-minute movie. He explained that marvelous characters like Eddie Scissions had to be cut, and that time had to be telescoped in many sequences.

I replied that to me, writing a novel was akin to a baker baking a loaf of bread: So long as the buyers pay for the bread, they were free to do with it as they chose. If they made dainty sandwiches, fine. If they fed it to their gerbils, fine. I realized that most books optioned for movies became gerbil food. I've never understood authors who are proprietary with their work, fighting any changes of plot or character. All I care about is being properly paid.

"Field of Dreams" was a stunning exception. I wept when I read the finished screenplay. "This is my own work doing this to me," I said. "How can this happen?"

When Paramount read the script, it said, "This is a wonderful script. However, it is a SMALL movie, and this year we are not making small movies."

A disappointed Phil Robinson asked, and was granted permission, to shop the screenplay to other studios.

Eventually, Universal Studios took over the option.

Robinson and his associates accepted a lower budget in return for Phil being hired to direct the movie, something he felt was essential to protect the integrity of the script. Even so, he had his battles. Studio executives, when they read the ending, loved the idea of father and son playing catch so much that they insisted on moving it forward and have father and son travel across America together, searching for writer Terence Mann and Moonlight Graham. Phil was appalled and stood his ground, pointing out that it would nullify the sweet surprise of the father's resurrection. Executives reluctantly conceded the point.

In the novel, the reclusive writer was the real-life J.D. Salinger. Why was he not a character in the movie? The answer involves both moxie and cowardice. Houghton Mifflin had their lawyers analyze the manuscript word by word. The lawyers said to the effect that "the only thing Salinger could sue for was under a little-known definition of libel called 'false light.'" They went on to say that in order to advance his case, he would have to appear in court in person, something he definitely would not want, and he would have to say: "I have been portrayed in this novel as a kindly, loving, humorous individual. In reality, I am a surly son of a bitch who lives in a bunker on the side of a hill and shoots at tourists when they drive by my house. Therefore, I have been portrayed in a false light."

Houghton Mifflin's lawyers did receive a grumbling letter from Salinger's lawyers stating that he was outraged and offended to appear in the novel and would be very unhappy if it were transferred to other media. They didn't say that he would do anything, just that he would be unhappy.

The cowardice involved was that studio executives were afraid Salinger would launch a nuisance lawsuit just as the movie was being released, and it would cost them time and a lot of publicity money to get rid of it. The moxie appeared when the executives pointed out that on a good opening weekend, the movie would be seen by 10 times the number of people who had read the book. The change would be noticed by only the literate few, people who are not valued by movie executives.

For once, the movie people were right. Over the years, most people I have met have no idea that J.D. Salinger was the original reclusive author. Also, many who read the novel have no idea that Salinger was a real person, not my fictional creation.

Why Ray Kinsella? The choice of name for my protagonist had little to do with me personally, and everything to do with Salinger. While researching the novel, I found that Salinger had used two characters named Kinsella in his fiction: Richard Kinsella, an annoying classmate in "The Catcher In the Rye," and Ray Kinsella, in the short story "A Young Girl in 1941 With No Waist at All," originally published in Mademoiselle magazine. I decided to name my character Ray Kinsella so he could turn up on Salinger's doorstep and say, "I'm one of your fictional creations come to life, here to take you to a baseball game."

After scouting locations from New Mexico to Ontario, the movie was filmed near Dyersville, Iowa, primarily on Don Lansing's farm. The movie site has become a major tourist attraction in Eastern Iowa. The Lansings have recently sold to a conglomerate, with ex-baseball great Wade Boggs as an investor.

I spent a few days on the movie set. I am a person who stays in the background and observes, so few of the cast or crew knew I was there. Making movies requires tons of patience, which I don't have. The endless setups, the persnickety lighting, the repetitive retakes are not something I can tolerate. My theory of movie-making is you get two chances. If you screw up the first take, then you'd better get it right the second time. I'd always come in under budget if nothing else.

I was present for the filming of the feed store scene, shot at an actual store in Dyersville. I sat just out of range of the cameras, finally was tired and completely bored after about eight takes, and went back to our motel. My wife and I were part of the audience at the PTA scene. We were trapped there for a full day of sweltering retakes, and we never appeared in the final cut.

I met Kevin Costner and Amy Madigan, and Gaby Hoffmann, who played their daughter. The most interesting person I met and spent time with on the set was Hoffmann's mother, Viva, the former Andy Warhol movie star of the 1960's. She was a charming, articulate woman who was also a writer and painter of note.

When we were informed the movie was going ahead, we, of course, talked casting. We were informed they were recruiting Kevin Costner. I had never heard of Costner, so my choice for Ray Kinsella was Bo Svenson, who I thought looked a little like me and the imaginary Ray, and whose work I had admired in "Walking Tall." I rented "No Way Out" and agreed that Kevin would be perfect for the part. James Earl Jones was the obvious choice for Terence Mann, and I was delighted when he was available.

I am told that the Voice that speaks to Ray in the cornfield was, though not credited, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan's husband.

I loved the movie. Novels and movies are entirely different art forms. I don't see how Phil Robinson could have done a better job of successfully transferring one to the other.

How have things changed in the past 25 years since the release of the movie? Fathers and sons still bond playing catch, still attend baseball games together, still share warm and luminous memories of games and players gone but not forgotten.

I have received letters from every part of the world, mainly from younger men, about how the ending of the movie affected them. Moved by those final scenes, men traveled, often thousands of miles, to take their fathers to baseball games, or just to have a catch in the backyard.

When the movie went into wide release and came to my then-hometown of White Rock, British Columbia, I set up a table in the lobby of the local theater to sell books as the crowd exited. But before that, each evening, I stood at the back of the theater as Kevin Costner and Dwier Brown, Ray and John Kinsella, played catch; and as I did, I came to realize the absolute power of the great movie that Phil Robinson had created. For every night, one could hear the sniffling and snuffling of the audience, and the unabashed and unashamed tears that flowed as the universality of the father-son dynamic touched even the most indifferent hearts. I realized that my writing coupled with Phil Robinson's genius had made that happen.

Still, after 25 years, the saga that began with my recalling my own father's recollections of a disgraced baseball player undeserving of his fate, is not over; "Field of Dreams" the musical, is out there in the cosmos, ethereal as Brigadoon, lurking, waiting patiently, being groomed for the stages of the world.

In addition to "Shoeless Joe," a romantic, magic realism baseball novel, W.P. "Bill" Kinsella has written other fiction in that genre: "The Iowa Baseball Confederacy," "Magic Time," "If Wishes Were Horses" and "Butterfly Winter." He has written numerous baseball short-story collections, the fictional Hobbema Indian Reserve stories and two rollicking, rambling fictional accounts of life during the Great Depression on the prairies ("Box Socials" and "The Winter Helen Dropped By"). He has also written two collections of poetry, three baseball plays and several works of nonfiction, including an account of the career of baseball's Ichiro Suzuki, published only in Japanese, and a biography of Cree painter Allan Sapp, of whom Bill was an early collector and admirer.