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State of Dreams

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

By W.P. Kinsella

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.

Issue date: March 1, 2004

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