Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Q&A with Robin Clifford Wood




Robin Clifford Wood is the author of the new book The Field House: A Writer's Life Lost and Found on an Island in Maine. It focuses on the writer Rachel Field. Wood lives in Maine.


Q: You write, “Many people know the sensation of entering an old house and feeling something of its history in the air.” What connections did you feel with Rachel Field when you moved into the house she had lived in many years earlier?


A: When I first stepped through the doors of Rachel’s long-abandoned house I felt a fluttering in my chest and belly. How shall I describe it? Excitement? Anticipation? Was it the stirring of the house’s resident creative muse, reaching into my mind? Who knows.


But even thinking about it now I feel injected by it again. I shift in my seat, swallow, take a deep inhale.


I knew the building had housed creative souls – not only Rachel Field, but the poet Hortense Flexner, her artist/illustrator husband Wyncie King, Laurence Rosenthal, an Oscar-winning composer, and other less celebrated but no less inspired artists – so maybe a part of me was primed to feel what I felt, but the sensation persisted.


The power that lingered was Rachel’s. It was her presence that called to me, her poetry that felt a bit like mine, her story that resonated with me.


Across years of summers I encountered the same seascapes, mossy woods, and night skies that moved Rachel to write, then I recognized them in her poetry and prose.


As I indulged my curiosity and learned more of Rachel’s life, I also resonated with her insecurities, her reverence for childhood, her sense of wonder over natural beauty – a gull’s sunlit wing, a delicate harebell growing from a fissured stone, the wondrous realm of moss and mushroom.


Once I began researching her life in earnest, I found that we were raised in very similar social echelons, WASP-y, privileged, subject to both entitled expectations and elitist prejudices that we found discomfiting as we grew. Rachel’s life felt familiar, so like my own family’s ancestral story. She could be my family.


Finally, Rachel’s life was driven by two insistent forces – the urge to write and the urge to bear a family of her own – the very same prominent forces in my own heart and mind from childhood on.


The more time I spent in Rachel’s realm, the more she grew to be like a sister, a mentor, a dear friend, my inspiration and support.


Q: How did you research this book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: In 2008 I started researching Rachel Field for an 800-word magazine story and ended up with enough material for 10 times that length. I blithely decided to take a year to go ahead and write the whole biography. Ha! If I’d had any idea what I was getting into, I might never have started.


Maybe the biggest surprise was that I absolutely loved the research, which may be why I kept going for nine years.


It was like a treasure hunt with so many gem-studded chests to unearth along the way, and the people I met amazed me with their generosity. Archivists and librarians are our unsung heroes, keepers of our stories.


The trail led me from the Cranberry Isles in Maine to archive collections all over the country, since none of Rachel Field’s letters or papers have been digitized.


Everywhere I went, from New England to California, from Louisiana to New York, the memory-keepers welcomed me, encouraged me, and often went beyond the call of duty to help me dig up long-buried information.


Some of the most exciting discoveries took place right in the Field House. Among the books Rachel and her family left behind was one book with a cardboard cutout for one of Rachel’s silhouette illustrations. Here was an artifact I know she labored over with her own hands.


Another was a Wanamaker’s diary from 1928, with journal entries from Rachel’s mother Lucy. Two of her entries from that summer referred to someone named “Lyle” who appeared to be a love interest for Rachel. “Rachel and Lyle all devotion.” “She has an almost maternal care of him.”


It was several years before I solved the mystery of Lyle. Without Lucy Field’s lines to pique my interest, it’s likely I wouldn’t have discovered the greatest heartbreak of Rachel’s life.


I am lucky that there was so much to be found, so many caches of Rachel’s letters and the letters and journals of her friends.


For all I know there is a lot more out there, but a wise friend gave me invaluable advice. “When is the research done?” I asked him. He answered, “It’s never done. You just have to start writing.” Thank goodness he said so. Otherwise, I could still be hunting down missing pieces.


Q: What do you see as Rachel Field’s legacy today, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I am hoping that The Field House will rekindle Rachel’s legacy. I’m afraid her light has been hidden by tragedy and attrition, but if people start to read her work again, I believe they will be uplifted, see that the world contains beauty and hopefulness even in dark times.


Rachel Field’s work and her life remind us that there is delight in everyday things, that magic is as real as doing the dishes, that humility, joy, and openheartedness are never wrong.


Rachel saw sunshine in the face of sorrow. She lifted people up. She worked as hard at being a devoted friend, daughter, wife, and mother, as she did at writing, cooking, and housekeeping. Life was a treasure to her. I hope all those qualities will be transmitted to readers who get to know her.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Many ideas are vying for my attention right now. I have another finished book that I’d like to revise, a memoir that addresses how we handle the end of life.


That’s a particularly important subject for both me and my husband, a Pediatric ICU physician. We’d like to see our society do better with that final, precious chapter of life.     


I’ve considered creating a book from five years’ worth of newspaper columns that told people-stories from all around Maine. I also have two years of daily blog entries, written 10 years apart, that I’d like to re-read and cull for material.


Finally, I’ve been encouraged by recent positive reception to my poetry to give it more credence. I’d rather write poetry than anything (another thing I share with Rachel Field), but I’ve always disparaged my rhyming verse as childish.


I think I should have seen that as a plus! We should all tune in to our childish selves now and then. I’m interested in giving poetry more serious time and energy.


I recently signed up for an eight-week online writing course and a poetry retreat this summer. Publishing a book has been exhilarating and spectacularly rewarding, but it has also distanced me from the creative part of writing.


I have always worked well in the role of student, so I’m hoping these structured endeavors will reconnect me with creativity and guide me towards my next project.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Pay attention to your childhood dreams. I knew when I was 8 years old that I wanted to be a writer, but I never took it seriously. No one pushed me to pursue it until I was about 32 and my husband said, “I’ll take a year off. Go back to school.”


He was also the one, years later, who slipped a want-ad for a columnist job onto my desk. Hint hint!


There is so much wisdom and self-awareness in children that is discounted or muffled by society’s status quo. Life may be full and wonderful – as mine has been! – but still missing something if we bury the burning ember at the core of our beings.


Also – listen to the people who love you and know what’s inside you. Seek mentors anywhere you can find them, either living or from the past. Through the legacy of her words, Rachel Field added the impetus I needed to take my writing fully in hand.


Eight-year-old me knew herself, but I slipped her into the wings of life’s stage. For me, at age 60, it is the sweetest gift to have given free rein to that little girl’s vision at last. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb


  1. This sounds so lovely! I'm going to look for this book. Thanks for the interview!