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Chuck Kinder, writer and teacher who inspired Michael Chabon’s ‘Wonder Boys,’ dies at 76

Chuck Kinder.
Chuck Kinder. (Family photo)
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Chuck Kinder, a writer and teacher at the University of Pittsburgh whose party-giving and endless procrastination as a writer formed the basis of “Wonder Boys,” a novel by one of his students, Michael Chabon, and a later film of the same name, died May 3 at a hospital in Miami. He was 76.

He had heart ailments, said his wife, Diane Cecily.

For years, Mr. Kinder led the creative writing program at the University of Pittsburgh, where he became renowned for his generosity as a teacher and as a host whose house became the literary heart of a city he called “the Paris of Appalachia.”

In the 1970s, he published two novels set in his native West Virginia, but for years afterward he toiled on a manuscript that grew to more than 3,000 pages and never seemed to reach a conclusion. Chabon, who was Mr. Kinder’s student in the 1980s, used him as the model for Grady Tripp, the narrator and central figure of the 1995 novel “Wonder Boys.” The character was played by Michael Douglas in a well-received 2000 film, directed by Curtis Hanson.

The novel Mr. Kinder could not finish was called “Honeymooners,” which centered on his friendship in the 1970s with short-story writer Raymond Carver while they were both studying at Stanford University. By the early 1980s, colleagues, the publishing world and even Mr. Kinder’s students knew about the book that seemingly had no end.

“I remember one night being at Chuck’s home for an impromptu party,” Chabon said in a telephone interview. “I saw a light coming from his writing room, and on the desk was a crook-necked desk lamp, shining down on this monstrous stack of white paper. It must have been four reams. Chuck used to take people to look at it.”

Like his fictional alter ego, Mr. Kinder was a shambling character who smoked a lot of marijuana but was attentive to his students, offering encouragement and hard-won wisdom about literary life. Students and famous writers constantly dropped by his house in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

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“His teaching didn’t stop at the classroom,” Chabon said. “He was open with his struggles as a writer. I remember him saying to me, ‘The book defeats me daily.’ But the thing that made him so remarkable and so inspiring as a teacher was that he just loved literature. What you felt after an hour in Chuck Kinder’s classroom was that passion for literature and writing.”

In Chabon’s novel and the film, Grady Tripp’s mountainous manuscript is titled “Wonder Boys.” Throughout the book, Tripp deals with romantic entanglements, fends off the demands of his editor and nurtures a promising student (played in the film by Tobey Maguire) — who pilfers a jacket once worn by Marilyn Monroe from the home of the university chancellor.

In one madcap scene, Tripp has a gun pointed at him as he tries to recover his stolen car and the jacket inside it. His editor, Terry Crabtree (played by Robert Downey Jr. in the film), attempts to come to his rescue in another car:

“Crabtree had been driving so slowly not because he was waiting for me but because he was engaged in an ongoing battle with the open door of the car, trying, all at the same time, to close it, to flee the alley, and, if possible, to prevent the wind from carrying off every last page of my novel. The air was filled with Wonder Boys ; I saw now that its pages made up a fair portion of the trash that was blowing through the alleyway and across the parking lot.”

All but seven pages out of 2,611 — “seven years of my life!” — were lost.

Mr. Kinder was not quite so comically beleaguered as Grady Tripp. After years of editing, his manuscript was trimmed to 358 pages and published in 2001 as “Honeymooners: A Cautionary Tale,” which followed the friendship and rivalry of two hard-drinking writers.

“Kinder’s prose has the range to encompass the tenderness of romantic love and the longing for the infinite that haunts these men,” novelist Jay McInerney wrote in a New York Times review. “If ‘Honeymooners’ doesn’t make you laugh, cry and cringe with sympathetic embarrassment, then you should probably adjust your medication immediately.”

Charles Alfonso Kinder II was born Oct. 8, 1942, in Montgomery, W.Va., and moved around the state during his childhood. His father worked in the insurance business; his mother was a nurse.

Mr. Kinder was an early admirer of Jack Kerouac and other Beat writers of the 1950s and studied English at West Virginia University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1967 and a master’s degree in 1968. (He was not related to another Chuck Kinder, who was the punter and place-kicker for the WVU football team in the mid-1960s.)

After teaching at what is now Waynesburg University in Pennsylvania, Mr. Kinder went to Stanford University, where he studied and taught writing and became friends with Carver, Tobias Wolff, Scott Turow, Larry McMurtry and other writers.

Mr. Kinder’s first two novels, “Snakehunter” (1973) and “The Silver Ghost” (1978), were coming-of-age novels set in hardscrabble quarters of West Virginia. He taught in California and Alabama before joining the University of Pittsburgh faculty in 1980. After “Honeymooners,” he published another book, “Last Mountain Dancer: Hard-Earned Lessons in Love, Loss, and Honky-Tonk Outlaw Life,” in 2004.

“The border between fact and fiction is a porous one I cross over and back easily,” Mr. Kinder told the Pittsburgh Current last year, when “Snakehunter” and “Last Mountain Dancer” were republished. “I have always told my students that my work is literally as true as the Bible.”

After several strokes and a heart attack, he retired from teaching in 2014 and moved to Key Largo, Fla. He published several volumes of poetry in recent years.

His first marriage, to Janet Weaver, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 44 years, Diane Cecily of Key Largo; a brother; and a sister.

“Of all the characters I’ve created,” said Chabon, who the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his 2001 novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” “Grady is one of my very favorites, and I couldn’t have done it if Chuck hadn’t been there.”

Chabon did not ask permission before basing the character on his onetime mentor, but several years after “Wonder Boys” was published, he learned that Mr. Kinder was teaching it in his class to a new generation of aspiring writers.

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