Unbeknownst to Jeannette MacDonald and Gary Walsh, what started as a book club in their living room in North River, Cape Breton is now a full-fledged writers festival drawing the best of the best from the literary world.
This weekend, Sept 29 to Oct 1, the Cabot Trail Writers Festival is will host its 9th weekend of writers, readers, musicians and artists. Several years ago the festival outgrew its birthplace in North River and moved a few kilometres down the Cabot Trail to the Gaelic College in St. Anne’s.
The focus is always quality writing from a diverse cross-section of authors from the various fields of non-fiction, memoir, fiction, poetry and graphic novels.
Although they’re the main organizers, MacDonald and Walsh are quick to add that since day one, back in 2009, they’ve worked alongside a small group of dedicated volunteers. Their motto is to treat writers excellent. A Simple enough recipe with results that match up.
“They want to come,” says Walsh of the writers. “It’s not a hard sell anymore.”
Biographer Rosemary Sullivan was a featured author several years ago. She says it’s one of the best festivals anywhere. “Writers are feted like rock stars. The audience is intensely engaged. The venue is exquisitely beautiful. And books are sold by the cartloads.”
2017 offers a similar format to past years but with a focus on publishing. House of Anansi Press celebrates their 50th birthday this year and their publisher, Sarah MacLachlan, will be among those featured for conversation and birthday cake.
This year’s authors are Sheree Fitch, Carol Bruneau, Linden MacIntyre, Wayne Johnston, Sarah Faber, Mona Knight (who will launch her first novel, Banjo Flats, the Friday night of the festival) and Rebecca Silver Slayter.
Fitch and Bruneau are set to hold back-to-back workshops on Saturday that focus on the craft of writing. Several panel discussions on Saturday afternoon will shine a literary focus on what’s involved in publishing that first novel, on the success of Sheree Fitch’s new bookstore and also the local launch of Linden McIntyre’s latest novel, The Only Cafe.
Also on hand this year will be literary legend, Douglas Gibson. The former longtime publisher and president of McClelland & Stewart also turned writer with his own two books, Across Canada by Story and Stories about Storytellers. His sincerity and dedication to Canadian writers is unparalleled.
At the Festival Gibson will present his project, 150 Years of Canadian Storytelling, a decade-by-decade multimedia literary presentation.
“I admire Gary and Jeannette because they’re taking this risk in letting me present that evening,” chuckles Gibson. “I’m really looking forward to it.”
He jokes he may have been to more literary festivals that anyone else in the world. Then he retracts that statement with another laugh, “Well, that might not be true, maybe Margaret Atwood.”
Joking aside (but never too far) Gibson says all book festivals break down the barriers between authors and readers. “And that’s terrific on both sides.”
Humble Gibson says he’s thrilled to be coming back across the causeway. His ties to the island trace back to Cape Breton’s own Alistair MacLeod. As he’ll no doubt share—and has written and talked about before—Gibson is said to have wrested the No Great Mischief manuscript from MacLeod—both men duelling in full tartan regalia. Not really, but I’ll add that image to the varied and voluptuous versions of how he eventually managed to get the award-winning novel to print.
“I’m coming home,” Gibson says chuckling when asked how he felt about heading back to Cape Breton.
Of his 150 Years of Canadian Storytelling, “I’m really doing what I did as a publisher—going out and sharing the love of literature.”
“I’m doing missionary work,” he laughs.
Jared Bland is the current publisher of McClelland & Stewart and vice-president of Penguin Random House Canada. He’s attended the Cabot Trail Writers Festival several times in the past and served as moderator for the lively panels.
“The Cabot Trail Writers Festival is a very special thing—a rare union of writers and readers in a place of stunning beauty and in an atmosphere of joyful celebration of the written word. I’d be hard pressed to think of a finer way to experience the bounty of Canadian literature anywhere in the country.”
For Walsh and MacDonald, its about the writers, the readers and the genuine connections that have developed amidst Cape Breton’s beautiful Fall splendour.
“My favourite part is that I occasionally get to drive authors to and from the airport.” says Walsh. “When else would I ever get two hours in a car with David Adams Richards?”
MacDonald agrees that it’s the relationships formed that create such an intimate to the festival. Writers and those who love the written word share their meals together and hang out throughout the weekend. The authors’ books are for sale—so there’s always a flurry of signing going on.
“Writers are open and eager to talk and share their time with readers,” says MacDonald. “The small, relaxed atmosphere allows for that.”
As in past years, Sunday will focus on pertinent literary discussions between the authors, such as the future of physical books and writing about home.
The festival will wrap with a musical component, with award-winning traditional roots musician James Keelaghan, as songwriting is very much a present beat within the heart of the weekend.
“This is what a festival is meant to be,” says Rosemary Sullivan. “A celebration of the imagination and the power of literature to enter our lives and change us.”