The Little Writers Festival that Could

This article was originally published in the Cape Breton Post newspaper, Sept. 24, 2012 under the rather ungainly title Festival treasured by writers, ‘wordies’.

This fall, as the leaves begin to blaze scarlet and gold, the highlands of North River will come alive with the sound of words. Words written and spoken, words celebrated in song, story, comics and poetry. Hang on to your hats, folks. It’s just about time for the fourth edition of the Cabot Trail Writers Festival, and it promises to be terrific.

The Canadian Geographic Travel Blog agrees, listing it as one of 10 recommended fall literary festivals and ‘possibly the most scenic location in Canada for a literary (or any other) festival.’ Neatly tucked between ‘Hike the Highlands’ and ‘Celtic Colours International’, this event runs from Friday, September 28th, to Sunday, September 30th.

The idea was born when a few members of the St. Ann’s Bay Book Club mused about hosting a writers festival. After all, who could offer a more spectacular setting than North River along the Cabot Trail? What better venue than the cosy community hall, perched above the river as it tumbles through the Cape Breton Highlands to St. Ann’s Bay? And so a committee of dedicated volunteers began the hard work of organizing, fund raising and advertising. In October 2009 the vision was realized when the Cabot Trail Writers Festival made its stunning debut.

Though still in its youth, this intimate little festival is already treasured by authors and attendees alike. It is small by design, so that participants can meet and mingle with authors throughout the weekend. Organizers Gary Walsh, Jeannette MacDonald, Loreto Doyle, Leah Noble and Mary Ann Wilson plan to keep it that way. “It’s the festival’s best asset,” says Gary. Where else could a reader banter over brunch with such celebrated authors as Douglas Arthur Brown and Donna Morrissey? Or scour the shelves of the popular Reader’s Market book stall while sharing recommendations and talking books with the likes of Alexander MacLeod and Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Johanna Skibsrud?


But it’s not just readers who enjoy meeting the writers behind the books we love. Authors have also singled out this festival for providing an friendly – and breathtaking – setting where they can relax and chat with readers and other writers.

“The Cabot Trail Writers Festival is like spending a weekend with family,” said Michael Crummey, attending in 2010 to read from his novel Galore.

Participants who want to delve deeper into the craft of writing can pick up tips from the pros by participating in a variety of informal workshops. Each author leads two workshops, which have covered such diverse topics ‘narrative non-fiction techniques’ with journalist and award-winning non-fiction author Marq de Villiers, to exploring the ‘delights and constraints’ of novels versus short stories with Susan Zettell, a local writer who works in both forms.

So, after three terrific years, can the festival live up to such Great Expectations? Well, one look at the line-up will get ‘wordies’ tingling. Wayne Johnston, author of best-sellers The Navigator of New York, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and A World Elsewhere has recently won the Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley Prize for his entire body of work. Stephen Kimber is an award-winning editor, broadcaster and author of eight books, including the novel on Africville, Reparations, and the non-fiction work Flight 111: The Tragedy of the Swissair Crash. Kate Beaton, originally from Mabou, is an exciting young graphic artist who is hitting in the big leagues with cartoons in such renowned magazines as The Paris Review and The New Yorker. Her book, Hark! A Vagrant won the 2012 Doug Wright Canadian Cartooning Award for Best Book. The featured authors will read from their work, conduct workshops, and join historian Dr. Ken Donovan for a lively Sunday morning panel discussion.

So how does a small rural community pull off an event of this calibre? The Cabot Trail Writers Festival is all about community spirit. In fact, it was one of the reasons why this area earned the 2011 Community Spirit Award from Lt. Governor Mayann E. Francis. The festival is organized and run by volunteers, so all proceeds go to authors, performers and local small businesses that provide food and accommodations. Its mandate includes nurturing emerging writers through high school workshops and writing classes for all ages. Although featured authors may come from anywhere in the world, the festival is committed to year-round support of the local creative community through commissioned works, festival performances and author appearances.

In 2010 local playwright Bev Brett was commissioned to write and direct a theatre piece based on an Alistair MacLeod story. The result was Vision, a darkly humorous adaptation performed by the St. Anns Bay Players (founded by Bev in 1980). The 2011 opening gala featured a unique pairing of visual art and poetry. Shauntay Grant, writer, musician, spoken-word performer and third Poet Laureate of Halifax, wrote five commissioned poems, each inspired by one of local artist Gordon Kennedy’s large-scale metal sculptures. Shauntay then performed each poem alongside its sculptural muse. This year will put on a spotlight on local publisher Breton Books’ new short-story collection The Men’s Breakfast, with readings by six contributors.

Music is always an integral component of the Cabot Trail Writers Festival. “We believe some stories are told in music,” says Loreto. “It’s really a global language.” Cape Breton boasts many world-class musicians and the festival offers a fine venue for virtuosity, from the Celtic tunes of Rocky Shore to the distinctive musical brew of the POE Trio. Singer songwriters Carmel Mikol, Bill Conall, and Angelo Spinazzola have also each entertained past festival-goers, touching hearts and funnybones with skilfully woven words and music. Singer, songwriter and pianist Kim Dunn will open this year’s festival on Friday evening. Local son Alec Frith and friends will once again rev things up on Saturday night. Dancers spilled onto the floor last year when Alec and his Halifax-based jazz quartet the Synchronics got the North River hall jumping. Leon Dubinsky, composer of “Rise Again” and a founding member of “Buddy and the Boys” will close things out after a scrumptious Sunday morning brunch.

There is much to love in this jewel of a festival, but perhaps featured 2010 author Sheree Fitch said it best – and why not? She is a great writer!

JeanMcNeil-w-ShereeFitch“Once a year in the mystical highlands of Cape Breton, when the colours of leaves burn crimson and orange, folks gather to tell and listen to stories. There are some that will tell you that during this ‘festival of words’, wondrous, strange, and magical things happen. I am one, for I was there, and this is so.”

To get current information on the Cabot Trail Writers Festival, go to

by Sue McKay Miller
September 2012

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