Influential writer, retiring Pitt professor Kinder a character all his own
Chuck Kinder sits in an easy chair just off the kitchen of his home in Squirrel Hill, a cane at his side, a plastic pillbox labeled with the days of the week on a nearby table.
This is where he used to hold court with writers and poets and musicians, all drawn to his Appalachian version of the Algonquin Roundtable, spirits and libations plentiful and flowing. It was not unusual for Kinder to host parties for visiting writers — he seemed to know everyone who ever published a book — so guests might spot James Crumley or Tobias Wolff or April Smith or Scott Turow, friends and accomplices, mixing with students from his classes at the University of Pittsburgh.
But the last four years have taken a cruel toll on the 71-year-old West Virginia native. Kinder's body has been ravaged by two strokes, a heart attack, triple bypass surgery and knee-replacement surgery. More than enough for anyone, let alone a man who spares no details chronicling his wild side in print.
“It was nature's way of telling me to slow down, so I did,” Kinder says, but the glint in his eyes belies any physical shortcomings. Kinder's mind is still sharp, his answers filled with mirth and mischief.
On May 30, Kinder will officially retire from the University of Pittsburgh, where he has taught for a little more than three decades and served as the director of the creative writing program. Colleagues and friends will gather to pay homage before he and his wife, Diane Cecily, move to Key Largo, a mythic Florida destination fitting for a man of mythic qualities.
“Aside from his remarkable rollicking talent, so evident in books like ‘Honeymooners' and ‘Last Mountain Dancer,' Chuck Kinder is one of the most generous men I have ever known,” says Tobias Wolff, who teaches at Stanford University and is the author the memoir “This Boy's Life” and numerous works of fiction. “He truly rejoices in the good work and success of his friends. He loves his students, gives them his unstinting attention and encouragement. He opens his heart and his home to anyone who cares to enter. He is blessed to have found a great partner in generosity and passion for literature, the beautiful Diane Cecily. I love and cherish them both.”
To know Chuck Kinder for five minutes is to feel like you've known him forever. He takes great delight in listening to people tell stories about their families or the novels they are writing or impending marriages (or divorces), even though there's no one better at spinning gravity-defying tales. His books, especially “Honeymooners” and “Last Mountain Dancer,” have a fabulous quality that is the byproduct of Kinder's hillbilly aesthetic and linguistic gymnastics.
Richard Ford, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Independence Day,” thinks Kinder's tendency to cast himself as a literary outlaw meshes perfectly with his writing.
“His novels — all of them — are books that break molds, that importantly blur lines between history and artifice, that really, truly carry the aesthetic lessons we all tried to learn in the '70s (from the greats of that time — Barthelme, Gass, Borges, Coover) right into the present, and with startling freshness and humor, compassion and wit,” Ford says.
“In a sense, his ‘outlaw' persona, while it's in part a way of camouflaging himself away from preciousness and self-regard, is also completely earned, in artistic terms,” Ford says. “Somewhere back in the blear past, Chuck might have known some rules about how novels ought to be framed; but he pretty quickly went beyond the rules and found forms and fascinations and imperatives that suited what he thought was important to write.
“And thank goodness he did. We're all better for it,” he says.
“His writing mingles the lyrical, the conversational, the mythic and the profane in engaging and hypnotizing rhythms,” says former Pitt student Michael Chabon, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for the novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.”
Back to short form
The strokes, the heart attack and the knee-replacement surgery not only limit Kinder's mobility, but also sap his once prodigious energy for the marathon sessions necessary to write novels. Instead, Kinder has turned to poetry as a palliative for his ailments and an expedient outlet for his creativity.
“I realized my days of writing 1,000-page novels were over,” Kinder says. “So I went back to my first love, which is poetry.”
Two poetry collections, “All That Yellow” (Low Ghost Press) and “Imagination Motel” (Six Gallery Press), will be published on Oct. 8, his 72nd birthday. Kinder also self-published “Giant Night,” a sprawling collection that friends have alternately called a memoir, science fiction and a Jim Jarmusch screenplay.
“I think it's a book of poetry, but I could be wrong,” Kinder says. “It's like a scrapbook, with letters from old friends. At one point, I was going to call it ‘Dead Drinking Buddies.' ”
While Kinder's literary reputation among his colleagues verges on the Olympian, his ability to nurture writers is just as impressive.
Jim Daniels, a professor of writing at Carnegie Mellon University, remembers coming to Pittsburgh in the early 1980s as a “25-year-old punk from Detroit, not yet published” and feeling like an outsider until he met Kinder.
“Chuck would have these parties and get-togethers at his house, and he welcomed me into the Pittsburgh writing community,” Daniels says. “He would host this thing he called ‘rafting and ruckuses' in West Virginia, and his entire family was generous; his sister and his brother-in-law were very welcoming. ... I think he comes from a family that is warm and hospitable and open, and he extended that to the writers community in Pittsburgh.”
Kathleen George, a theater professor at Pitt and an accomplished mystery writer, thinks Kinder's persona overshadows his perceptiveness.
“There are times he hides his academic brilliance under a ‘just West Virginia folks' shrug,” George says, “but if you know him, you soon understand he misses nothing. Whether it's ‘Antiques Roadshow' or Steelers football or Derrida or a false note in a student's story, he trains his sharp eye on it.”
At Pitt, Kinder helped foster the writing careers of Earl H. McDaniel, Chuck Rosenthal, Gretchen Moran Laskas and Keely Bowers, who won a Nelson Algren Award for short fiction in 2000. But he is most associated with Chabon, whose 1995 novel “Wonder Boys” featured a character, Grady Tripp, inspired by Kinder.
“What made Chuck such an inspiring teacher were his unbridled passion and enthusiasm for books, writing and literature,” Chabon says, “his store of practical information about writing and vast hoard of instructive anecdotes about writers and the writing life, and the openness with which he was willing to share his own experience of creative struggle.”
While Kinder made sure to nurture talented students such as Chabon and Bowers, he did not neglect anyone who sought his counsel. Dave Bartholomae, who chaired Pitt's English department for much of Kinder's tenure as head of the creative-writing program, says Kinder had “time and energy for all of his students.”
“Chuck was a remarkable teacher to a generation of young writers,” Bartholomae says, noting that Kinder called his students “fictioneers.” “He gathered them not only in classes, but also in his office and at his home. He gave them a real sense of what it was like to make the kind of commitment necessary to be a writer. “
Kinder says: “If I've had a measure, no matter how small an influence, or if I've been helpful to some of that amazing talent, including Michael and Keely ... that to me is the most important thing I've done in my lifetime.”
For the past few years, Kinder and his wife have wintered in Key Largo — “we're not snowbirds, we're snow crows,” he says — because the blood-thinning medications he takes chill his bones, even on temperate spring days. He does not like being cold all the time, or having to wear a sweater when a Hawaiian shirt is more to his taste, so a house in Key Largo on Florida Bay awaits.
Spiritually, however, there will be no movement. Pittsburgh is where he coined the phrase “the Paris of Appalachia.” Pittsburgh is where “walking in the streets on a rainy night, the way the light looks on the pavement, you feel like you're moving in and out of time.”
“I will never leave,” Kinder says. “This is the hometown of my heart.”
Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.