Genre-blending biography-memoir reveals two women, connected across time
Cranberry Isles, MAINE—A compelling blend of biography and memoir, “The Field House” (She Writes Press, May 4, 2021) recounts the remarkable life of writer Rachel Field from the perspective of a woman who lived in Field’s old, neglected island home in Maine, sparking a unique sisterhood across time.
Born of illustrious New England stock, Rachel Field was a National Book Award-winning novelist, a Newbery Medal-winning children’s writer, a poet, playwright, and rising Hollywood success in the early twentieth century. Her light was abruptly extinguished at the age of forty-seven, when she died at the pinnacle of her personal happiness and professional acclaim.
Fifty years later, Robin Clifford Wood stepped onto the sagging floorboards of Rachel’s long-neglected home on the rugged shores of an island in Maine and began dredging up Rachel’s history. She was determined to answer the questions that filled the house’s every crevice: Who was this vibrant, talented artist whose very name entrances those who still remember her work? Why is that work—which was widely celebrated in her lifetime—so largely forgotten today?
“A stunning and intimate portrait of a once-prized American writer and poet who deserves to be remembered” –Pulitzer Prize winner Barbara Walsh, author of August Gale: A Father and Daughter’s Journey into the Storm and Sammy in the Sky
“The Field House: A Writer’s Life Lost and Found on an Island in Maine”
Robin Clifford Wood | May 4, 2021 | She Writes Press | Biography, Memoir
Paperback | ISBN: 978-1647420451 | $16.95
“An eloquent, detailed tribute to a less well-known but inspiring author” –Kirkus Reviews
ROBIN CLIFFORD WOOD has a BA from Yale University, an MA in English from the University of Rochester, and an MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine. During twenty-five years as a full-time mom, she published local human-interest features in New Hampshire, New York, and Massachusetts and spent seven years as a regular columnist, first in Massachusetts, then for Maine’s Bangor Daily News. She began teaching college writing in 2015. Her articles have appeared in Port City Life magazine, Bangor Metro, and Solstice literary magazine, which published her powerful essay “How Do You Help Your Parents Die?” in its spring 2019 issue. Her award-winning poetry received national recognition from the 2020 Writer’s Digest Competition. Wood lives in central Maine with her husband and dogs. The Field House is her first book. For more information, visit www.robincliffordwood.com.
In an interview, Robin Clifford Wood can discuss:
- How she first came to learn about Rachel Field, and what it was like to live in Field’s house among her possessions
- Why she decided to write the first biography on Field
- What makes Field’s life and work worth remembering
- The sisterhood that connects her with Field across time and space
- How her life has been affected by her research and the writing of “The Field House”
An Interview with Robin Clifford Wood
1. How did you first come to know Rachel Field? Have you always been a fan of her work?
I only had the vaguest awareness of Rachel Field before I started spending time on Sutton Island in 1979, but I’d heard of her poem that begins, “If once you have slept on an island, you’ll never be quite the same.” That opening line proved to be true for Rachel and me both. She was still quite renowned in the Cranberry Isles region in the 80s, so her name became increasingly familiar. When we first bought the Field House in 1994, tour boats still passed by out front announcing over their PA system: “Up there to your right you’ll see the home of the famous author Rachel Field.”
Keep in mind, too, that when people move out of these island homes, they leave most things behind. There are no roads, only footpaths for carting your supplies in wheelbarrows from the ferry dock. So I was living amongst Rachel’s things – the wicker furniture she sat on, her mail up in the attic, her books on shelves, the chipped china and tin coffee pot that were old even when she arrived, her initials hand-stitched into a linen dish towel, old galley-proofs in a drawer, a map of Paris from 1920 that she must have bought on a trip to Europe. It wasn’t just the smell of spruce and sea-wind, the rhythm of tides and tolling of bell buoys, the expeditions to gather blueberries, cranberries and mushrooms, or the thick, moss-carpeted woods that we shared; I was also immersed in the same domestic space that Rachel inhabited.
2. How did you come to live in Field’s house in the Cranberry Isles, and what was the experience like for you? Do you believe fate had a part to play?
I first set foot on Sutton Island as an 18-year-old, when my college boyfriend invited me to visit his family’s summer home. I fell in love with the island’s peace and simplicity, life boiled down to just being. It was years (fourteen!) before Jonathan and I heard that Rachel’s old abandoned house was up for sale. By then we were married with four children, and the island was rooted deeply in the soil of our lives. As soon as I walked into the house, I got flutters in my belly. I felt something – excitement? anticipation? connection? I knew it was a writer’s house before I got there, but I felt that it was a writer’s house when I stood inside its walls.
As for fate – who knows? A part of me thinks Rachel Field reached out to me across time. There were so many strangely convenient coincidences that joined Rachel’s life and mine, or streamlined my path to writing about her life. But it took so long for me to get her message – another fourteen years before I started researching Rachel’s life, then ten more to finish the book. Maybe fate or Rachel’s spirit or some magic muse led me here, but whoever it was, they were extremely patient.
3. Can you tell me more about those “strangely convenient coincidences?”
Well, it seemed that every time I got discouraged or lost momentum on the project, some new source would mysteriously crop up to draw me back in. An archivist I’d met called to tell me about someone who wanted to donate his private Rachel Field collection to their library – could she share my contact information? That someone became an important mentor. Other times, whenever my life began drifting away from the project, I’d get an invitation to read Rachel’s poetry at a public event, or a question about copyrights, or an invitation to give a talk about Rachel, or a new batch of letters in the mail from a Rachel Field fan. Getting a publisher was similarly serendipitous. I’d shifted my focus to a different project, and here came the big news. Rachel was back at number one in my attentions.
Also, it was uncanny how every cache of Rachel Field material was housed somewhere that connected me to family, which streamlined my logistics. Two of my kids were at Yale when I went to study in the Yale archives. I had kids living in Washington D.C. and in Cambridge, Mass when I visited collections in those cities, so I got to combine my work with visits to my children. My mother was a Vassar alumna, so she came with me to the Vassar archives to be my research assistant for the day. My daughter’s college softball team invited all their parents to their annual spring training. The year I was in the thick of my research, their spring training was in California. That’s when I did all my California research.
One of the longest running mysteries for me was Rachel’s love life. She married late, at age 40, but her poetry from earlier years reveals an intense, passionate love affair that ended in heartbreak. An unidentified name, “Lyle,” shows up in an old Wanamaker Diary on a shelf of the Field House, written by Rachel’s mother. “Rachel and Lyle all devotion,” it reads. Who could this Lyle person be?
Years into the research, I had some down time about two weeks before I’d be driving my youngest daughter from Maine to New Orleans, where she was starting as a transfer student at Tulane University. I pulled out my notes for the first time in months and happened upon the name “Lyle Saxon,” a writer from the 1920s. Could this be Rachel’s mysterious Lyle? I tracked down Saxon’s biographer, who gasped when I told her my story. “I can’t believe you live in Rachel Field’s house,” she said. She knew all about Rachel and was sure she’d been in love with Lyle Saxon. There were thirty extraordinary letters from Rachel to Lyle, she told me, that almost convinced her to write about Rachel Field herself.
“Where are those letters?” I asked.
“In the archives at Tulane University.”
These are the things that started to convince me that something more than mere chance was at play.
4. What was your research process like for this biography?
I absolutely loved the research. First, research is like a treasure hunt, with each stop offering tantalizing new clues to lead you on. Second, I was astounded by the enthusiasm and generosity of archivists, librarians and hobbyist historians all over the country. I owe so much to the memory-keepers who boosted me along.
I started locally for an article about Rachel that would appear in Port City Life Magazine. Great Cranberry Island Historical Society had a dedicated Rachel Field and “Hitty” corner (Hitty is the doll protagonist of her Newbery winning book). That launching point led me to Hitty fans around the country who connected me to more archive sources. By the time I finished the research for that short article, I had enough material for eight articles, so I thought I’d take another year and write the full biography. Ha! Lucky I was so naïve or I might have never begun.
I ended up exploring archive collections in Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Louisiana, California, and more. A mentor I met along the way gave me one of my most important pieces of advice. I asked him, years into the work, “How do I know when I’m done with the research?” He answered, “You’re never done. You just have to start writing.”
5. “The Field House” blends biography and memoir creating a unique and more contemporary take on a traditional biography. Why did you choose this approach?
One unusual thing about this project is that I was invited to give presentations about Rachel Field years before the book came to be – not just around Maine, but in her hometown of Stockbridge, Massachusetts and at a literary conference in Tampa, Florida. At every speaking engagement, without fail, the thing that most captivated audiences was the interweaving of my life and Rachel’s, what we shared, even beyond an island house in Maine.
I was determined to make this book about Rachel, not about me, but I eventually became convinced that the best way to garner attention for Rachel’s story was to add an extra layer of storytelling. At the Iota Short Prose writer’s conference one summer, a writing prompt asked us to write a letter to someone who would never read it, so I wrote a letter to Rachel Field. That exercise blossomed into a revelation. Here was a way to dovetail my story into Rachel’s. I began composing letters to go with each chapter of the book.
6. You say that among other things, “The Field House” is a book about beauty. Will you explain this?
It becomes clear in the book that I fall in love with my biographical subject. Rachel Field, first and foremost, was a poet, with a poet’s sensibilities. She was transported by beauty, haunted by it at times, but always, always deeply moved by beauty – in a seagull’s wing underlit by the setting sun, in a turn of phrase, in the face of a dear friend. Rachel despaired of her own physical appearance – a weighty, overlarge frame and heavy masculine features. However, in her writing and her spirit, she shimmered with a beautiful, enchanting spirit. That is what I try to evoke by bringing her light back to life in this book. If we could all be infused with Rachel’s essence, the world would be a more beautiful place.
7. How has your life been affected by this project?
Where to begin? I suppose I can boil down the effect this project had on my life into two categories.
First, Rachel inspired me to push my writing further, to reach a place where I could finally call myself a writer without blushing and kicking my toe against the ground. Maybe I would have found my way here without her, but after decades of slow progress my writing accelerated with Rachel’s arrival on the scene. She was the source of my first glossy magazine success. The wish to finish her story was the impetus behind my application to an MFA program. I became an “expert” guest speaker thanks to her. My first commissioned piece – a ghost story produced by a professional theatre company – was based on her biography of Captain Samuel Hadlock, Jr. And of course, she is the source of my first published book.
Second, all the years I spent in Rachel’s company led me to a greater acceptance of my own life’s journey. Rachel and I were both drawn to writing and to motherhood. She immersed in the former and struggled to achieve the latter; I did the opposite. I sometimes felt I’d wasted my productive years not writing. Immersed in Rachel’s life, I recognized that my path, my choices, were valid ones, to be celebrated. Each of us realized our goals in our own time and fashion. In a way, our lives complement, uplift, and validate each other. She made me feel completed in a way I never had before.
A former award-winning journalist with national exposure, Marissa now oversees the day-to-day operation of the Books Forward author branding and book marketing firm, along with our indie publishing support sister company Books Fluent.
Born and bred in Louisiana, currently living in New Orleans, she has lived and developed a strong base for our company and authors in Chicago and Nashville. Her journalism work has appeared in USA Today, National Geographic and other major publications. She is now interviewed by media on best practices for book marketing.