William Patrick Kinsella was born to Irish American parents named John Matthew Kinsella and Olive Kinsella in Edmonton, Alberta. Kinsella was raised until he was 10 years-old at a homestead near Darwell, Alberta, 60 km west of the city, home-schooled by his mother and taking correspondence courses. "I'm one of these people who woke up at age five knowing how to read and write," he says. When he was ten, the family moved to Edmonton.
As an adult, he held a variety of jobs in Edmonton, including as a clerk for the Government of Alberta and managing a credit bureau. In 1967, he moved to Victoria, British Columbia, running a pizza restaurant called Caesar's Italian Village and driving a taxi.
Though he had been writing since he was a child (winning a YMCA contest at age 14), he began taking writing courses at the University of Victoria in 1970, receiving his Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing there in 1974. He travelled down to Iowa and earned a Master of Fine Arts in English degree through the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1978. In 1991, he was presented with an honorary Doctor of Literature degree from the University of Victoria.
Kinsella's first published book was called Dance Me Outside (1977) which was a collection of seventeen short stories about the lives of people in an Ontario based Indian reserve. Even though Dance Me Outside received much critical acclaim and was adapted into a film of the same name and a television miniseries, Kinsella's most famous work is his novel Shoeless Joe (1982), upon which the movie Field of Dreams was based. A short story by Kinsella, "Lieberman in Love", was the basis for a short film that won the Academy Award for Live Action Short Film – the Oscar win came as a surprise to the author, who, watching the award telecast from home, had no idea the film had been made and released. He had not been listed in the film's credits, and was not acknowledged by director Christine Lahti in her acceptance speech – a full-page advertisement was later placed in Variety apologizing to Kinsella for the error. Kinsella's eight books of short stories about life on a First Nations reserve were the basis for the movie Dance Me Outside and CBC television series The Rez, both of which Kinsella considers very poor quality. The collection Fencepost Chronicles won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour in 1987. The short story The Last Pennant Before Armageddon was adapted by the stage by the Live Bait Theater in Chicago in 1990.
Before becoming a professional author, he was a professor of English at the University of Calgary in Alberta. Kinsella suffered a car accident in 1997 which resulted in the end of his fiction-writing career. He is a noted tournament Scrabble player, becoming more involved with the game after being disillusioned by the 1994 Major League Baseball strike. He currently lives in Yale, British Columbia with his fourth wife, Barbara, and occasionally writes articles for various newspapers.