State Of Dreams The author's novel spawned a landmark film about magic amid the cornfields

March 01, 2004

I came to Iowa for the first time in August 1976 to study at the
Writers' Workshop in Iowa City. Even though the setting was
different from the prairies of Alberta and the ocean of Vancouver
Island where I had spent my life, I quickly fell in love with the
state--with the rolling fields of corn, the dense humidity, the
tall bamboo canes thick as hoe handles. 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. There is a spot on campus, along the riverbanks just
outside the English-Philosophy Building, where I have decided I
want my ashes spread. ¶ 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. I enjoyed driving through the nearby
cornfields, the air heavy and fragrant with growth.

I did not want my two years of graduate studies to end. I decided
to try to show, in my fiction, how I had come to love Iowa. I
began thinking about some stories my dad had told me about
Shoeless Joe Jackson and what had happened to him after he was
wrongly banned from baseball; they were good stories but not
necessarily true. Then I thought, What would happen if... ? Which
is what storytellers like me spend their lives asking. 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?

That was the genesis of my 1982 novel Shoeless Joe. It started as
a short story, which I read aloud at the Iowa City Creative
Reading Series the week before I left the city. The story was
published in an anthology and spotted by a young editor at
Houghton Mifflin named Larry Kessenich. With Larry's help I began
turning the story into a novel.

I knew I wanted to write something about the reclusive author
J.D. Salinger, who made himself conspicuous by hiding; I wanted
to write about a man named Moonlight Graham, who spent one
instant in 1905 as an outfielder for the New York Giants and
never came to bat; and I wanted to write about an old man who
stopped me on Dubuque Street in Iowa City, asked the time, then
said, "Did you know I'm 87 years old and I used to play for the
Chicago Cubs?" I got his name and arranged to interview him, but
he turned out to be a sports impostor, one of many I've
encountered over the years. When you're 87 years old, you can
claim to have played any professional sport you can still
remember.

I swirled all those ingredients together in an exotic cocktail of
fact, fiction and fantasy, and the result was Shoeless Joe. The
novel became the basis of the movie Field of Dreams. It also
conveyed my love for the Iowa landscape. As one of the characters
in Shoeless Joe says, "Once you fall in love with the land, the
wind never blows so cold again."

I was very happy that screenwriter and director Phil Alden
Robinson and his crew decided to film Field of Dreams in Iowa.
They scouted locations from Georgia to southern Ontario but
finally settled on one near the town of Dyersville, near Dubuque.
The location turned out to be excellent, and I loved the finished
movie. Most writers are unhappy with film adaptations of their
work, and rightly so. Field of Dreams, however, caught the spirit
and essence of Shoeless Joe while making the necessary changes to
make the work more visual. Though I had no direct input on the
movie, Phil kept in touch with me, explaining that there was no
way to get a 300-page novel into an hour-and-46-minute movie.

The filming site near Dyersville has since become a major tourist
attraction, with thousands of baseball and movie fans coming from
as far away as Japan to run the bases and field a few grounders
on the sacred ground. I've gone there several times on my visits
to Iowa--I've returned as a distinguished alumni lecturer at the
University of Iowa and taught several summers at the Iowa Summer
School of the Arts, all because the state holds a special place
in my heart since I first arrived there in 1976.

Edmonton-born W.P. Kinsella is the author of six novels,
including The Iowa Baseball Confederacy (1986).

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOE CIARDIELLO

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