Chuck Kinder poses for a portrait in his Squirrel Hill home in 2014 for the Tribune-Review. The article marked Kinder's retirement from Pitt. He died May 3, 2019.
By MARTY LEVINE
Chuck Kinder, who made an indelible mark on his fiction-writing students as an English department faculty member, novelist and host of a writing community centered on his Wightman Street home, died May 3, 2019.
Kinder’s attitude in writing workshops — which were held as often in his living room or by the backyard “pond” as on the fifth floor of the Cathedral of Learning, recalled former MFA student Dave Griffith (1998-2001) — might be summarized as, “We are all storytelling creatures. Let’s celebrate it here,” he said.
“The workshops that I had with Chuck were deeply formative for me,” said Griffith, now a faculty member at Notre Dame. “A lot of teachers, especially novelists and artists who have been out there in the world, (their teaching) becomes about the books they have published, the people they have met. Although Chuck liked to tell stories, they were very much in service of getting us to think about our experiences as a basis for fiction. It was very much about him trying to create this really rich atmosphere in his workshops, where storytelling is prized.”
His critiques “were never just ‘get the red pen and draw a line through it.’ It was ‘Let’s build upon what is working well here.’ ” He recalled Kinder saying, of a work Griffith feared was perhaps overwritten and distancing: “ ‘I think that there is a certain audience for this, but ultimately you have to be thinking — is this for you, or is this for the reader?’ He was trying to say the reader wants to have his heart broken, wants to be involved in the drama.”
Griffith recalled Kinder helping students struggle with the most fundamental questions in writing — and the most important questions for Kinder himself: “What would be a true end, the truest ending we could come up with? What does it mean to tell the truth in fiction?”
Griffith still marvels at how often Kinder and his wife, Diane Cecily, opened up their home to people. “Chuck really wanted to create a community around his students,” Griffith said.
“The first time I met Chuck Kinder was on my answering machine,” recalled another of Kinder’s students, Ellen Placey Wadey (1999-2002), on her Facebook page. “His West Virginia-thick voice (was) leaving me a message that he’d like to talk with me about coming to the University of Pittsburgh’s MFA program. I called him back right then, and he told me how my manuscript had gotten lost at the bottom of the pile, and he was sorry that he hadn’t called me before now, but he’d really like me to come to school there, and I could stay at his house for a visit if that would help me decide. Chuck was a storyteller from the bone marrow out. I’m sure that I’m not the only prospective student that he told this story to, but I also know that, like every good storyteller, he knew that’s exactly what I needed to hear.
“For Chuck, writing wasn’t about fancy answers or critical analysis,” she continued, “though he could get to the heart of a story faster than anyone I’ve ever known. … If you found yourself getting too caught up in technique and not paying attention to the heart of the matter and what it was telling you to do, he called that trickifying. He was always right.”
“Chuck liked to be the outlaw writer,” she added in an interview. “He cultivated the persona.” But he would be upset if that made anyone think he was any less prepared for his academic work, she added. “He was good at that stuff. He didn’t necessarily want to be known as good at that stuff….”
As a prose stylist, she said, Kinder cultivated another version of the outlaw sensibility: “He has an incredible sense of voice. It was colloquial and mischievous. It was a lot like his voice, but it was not exactly his voice. He had crafted it.” Kinder’s voice on the page would take his fiction “to places where folks wouldn’t expect. It’s not a voice that you always trusted was telling the truth. But you believed it.”
Born Oct. 8, 1942 in West Virginia, Kinder earned his B.A. in English from West Virginia University in 1967 and his M.A. from the same institution the next year. He was an Edith Mirrelees Writing Fellow at Stanford, 1971-73, and won four Yaddo writing fellowships and a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1979.
He began his academic career as an instructor at Waynesburg College in Waynesburg, Pa., in 1968, moving on to become a lecturer in fiction at Stanford and a writer in residence at the University of California–Davis and the University of Alabama before joining Pitt’s Department of English in 1980.
He published his first novel, “Snakehunter,” with Knopf in 1973, “The Silver Ghost” with Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1979 and “Honeymooners” with Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2001, along with the memoir, “Last Mountain Dancer: Hard-Earned Lessons in Love, Loss, and Honky-Tonk Outlaw Life” in 2004. On a curriculum vitae on file at Pitt, Kinder describes this work, then in progress, as a “519-page meta-memoir and mytho-poetic travel guide to West Virginia.”
He was friend, colleague and mentor to many well-known writers, but is perhaps best remembered as a teacher of Michael Chabon during the writing of “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” and as a character himself in Chabon’s “Wonder Boys.”
He retired in 2014 to Key Largo, Fla., after a series of strokes and other illnesses slowed him down, but continued to write and publish several books of poetry and another memoir, “Giant Night.” His manuscripts have been preserved in Pitt’s archives and special collections.
Besides his wife, Kinder is survived by sister Beth and brother David. A future memorial event is being planned.
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times and a former student of Chuck Kinder's. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-758-4859.