CHETICAMP: “Books are about everything – every imaginable human experience. So, when you get a bunch of writers together what they’re really talking about is life itself! And that’s a conversation for everyone…”
Rebecca Silver Slayter is the director of the Cabot Trail Writers Festival. In this – the 11th annual, and her second year at the helm – she welcomes visitors from across Canada and the U.S. for a three-day celebration of reading, writing and the literary community.
Event co-hosts are Mark Medley, former Books Editor for The Globe & Mail and the host of CBC Radio’s “Writers & Company,” Eleanor Wachtel. Guest speakers include Giller Prize winner Lynn Coady; 2017 Parliamentary Poet, George Elliott Clarke; Antigonish poets, Sara Peters and Joshua Mensch (a 2018 Governor General’s Award nominee); and two beloved Cape Breton writers Tom Ryan and Lesley Crewe.
Slayter says Wachtel will commence the festivities with a talk entitled “The Lives of Writers” by drawing on her nearly three decades of experience interviewing authors from all over the world. Throughout the weekend, there will be readings, workshops, panel discussions and even live musical performances.
“We start with the readings; short excerpts from all the different authors,” she explained. “It’s quite inspiring – like a chorus of voices. On Saturday, we have workshops in the morning, which are open to anyone – amateur to professional. Also, a couple of afternoon panel conversations. So many different events, such as our book clubs – where we just sit and talk with an author about a particular book.
“There is an event where we take a stroll through the woods for readings at little clearings along the way, musical performances featuring Gaelic singers, storytellers and writers in conversations about Gaelic literary culture in a Cape Breton context, then we wrap up the evening with some fiddling, by two Mi’kmaq performers.”
Slayter says the events are tailored to be accessible for everyone, of any age, from first-time guests to long-time attendees.
“We welcome everyone to participate in literary culture, like our own artistic ecosystem,” she stated. “With all the interesting events taking place, sometimes the most memorable moments are the conversations with your neighbour at the table, listening to the music, or lining up for brunch – the conversations that happen off stage. There’s not that velvet rope feel, between the audience and the guest writers, the way you might have at a larger festival. We really are bumping elbows with our favourite authors in the pancake line.”
The festival’s attendance has seen tremendous growth over its first decade. This year, over 1,000 attendees are expected. Slayter suggests the warm atmosphere of community may play a part.
“A significant number of our audience members remain for all the events. So, by the time Sunday afternoon rolls around, everyone has really gotten to know one another. You’ve built a family and there is something so beautiful about that.”
As director, Slayter works closely with board members to enlist writers, authors and speakers for the event.
“I have my wish list and we all weigh in on it. One board member will say, ‘Oh, I just read this wonderful book!’ and then I’m on the hunt for that publicist. We are constantly revising to leave space for new writers and books that may not be announced until later in the year. Also, how will writers resonate with each other? Wanting to hear how they will converse and diverge on a particular topic. Different genres, points of view and backgrounds while they are all up on stage.”
A recent initiative has been to create smaller, internal events, as well as making the festival affordable and accessible for younger people.
“We are trying to reach families and the next generation of readers. There are free events for youths, 18 and under, and workshops for young people – kids aged 7 to 11. Making space for younger readers to feel at home.”
Over the years, Slayter has transitioned from eager audience member, to festival host, to director. She jokes, “I don’t know if I’ve ever been to the festival, yet, when I didn’t both laugh and cry at some point. I really enjoy the panel discussions, the feeling that you’re almost eavesdropping on the writers as they talk about what inspires them. They are such natural storytellers, it doesn’t matter what they’re talking about, it’s the way they tell it – just fantastic.”
The Cabot Trail Writers Festival will run October 4-6 at Cape Breton’s Gaelic College in St. Ann’s.