Cabot Trail Writers Festival: Small But Great

On a beautiful fall day, one that felt more like early September than early October, we set off to spend the afternoon at the 2016 Cabot Trail Writers Festival, making our way through the early autumn woods to the Gaelic College at St. Ann’s. After a brief exploration of the gift shop, we made our way to the Hall of the Clans building where we were warmly greeted by festival director Gary Walsh, who reported that they had had an exciting opening evening, with readings by young writers just beginning their careers, as well as established authors.

Writers Festival volunteer Mary Ann Wilson

Writers Festival board member Mary Ann Wilson (Catherine Campbell photo)

Last night was spectacular… we had real variety of readings

His enthusiasm was echoed by Mary Ann Wilson, a member of the volunteer board that runs the festival, which has its origins in a book group, begun eight years ago in the North River community hall. Wilson feels it is a miracle that the festival has not only survived, but has grown and flourished.



This year, the festival authors included Christy Ann Conlin, Terry Fallis, Sarah Mian, Rosemary Sullivan, Kevin Sylvester, Leslie Vryenhoek and Russell Wangersky. Also present for the weekend were Andy Brown, publisher of Conundrum Press, and Jared Bland, publisher at McClelland and Stewart and vice president of Penguin Random House Canada.

Wilson noted that the festival is still run by volunteers:

We may be small, but we’re great. We have seven authors this yearall did a reading from one of their current works. All were happy to be here… We get a lot of great feedback. Authors love being in a room full of readers.

She provided evidence that those who attend the festival are, indeed, enthusiastic about reading, when she told us that, “Per capita, our book sales are better than those at most other writers festivals.” About 150 people had attended the Friday night sessions, and many had stayed for the writing workshops on Saturday, as she put it, “Today is a working day.” She encouraged us to help ourselves to tea or coffee, and homemade scones and oatcakes. We happily followed her advice, and made our way into the hall, where we met some of the aspiring writers and engaged readers.

Asked about their experiences, the festival goers we spoke to were uniformly enthusiastic. Jeannette MacDonald felt Saturday was “shaping up to be a great day again. There’s so much interaction between participants and authors.” Margaret Young told us that she was attending the festival with a group of friends. “I love books, love reading, love Canadian literature,” she said, adding that she was really enjoying listening to the writers.


Metaphysical detective

The afternoon presentation was a question and answer session with noted biographer Rosemary Sullivan. While Sullivan’s most recent book is the well-received Stalin’s Daughter, she has written a number of others, including The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out, Shadow Maker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwan, and By Heart: Elizabeth Smart–A Life. In a wide-ranging discussion ably hosted by Jared Bland, Sullivan reflected on her early experiences, her formative influences, told amusing anecdotes about the subjects of her books and reflected on the challenge of writing biographies.

Rosemary Sullivan, Cabot Trail Writers Festival 2016

Rosemary Sullivan, Cabot Trail Writers Festival 2016 (Catherine Campbell photo)

She described the biographer as a kind of “metaphysical detective.” Every life can be narrated in a number of ways, and the challenge for the biographer is to put the various episodes that constitute any human life into a coherent form, while making sense of the memories people have of the biographical subject, memories that do not always cohere neatly with one another. The biographer, Sullivan said, must ask some very deep metaphysical questions as she approaches her writing:

What is it to be? What is the nature of identity? You’re trying to add up the clues to figure out what makes up the person.

The biographer, she noted, can make two very different choices when faced with conflicting evidence. “You have to interview enough people so that you can form a synthesis among the memories… or you can record all of the alternate versions.” The art of the biographer lies in deciding which of these approaches to take, and when to take them. “A biography is an interpretation of a life… The artifice is in the narration.” She told us that her goal is to ‘put the reader in the place the writer is,” so that the reader can understand the subject in the same way the author does.

She also observed that it is important for biographers to acknowledge the limits of their metaphysical detective work. “You have to admit what can and can’t be known. Every life is a puzzle, especially your own.”


Personal narratives

Rosemary Sullivan

Rosemary Sullivan (Catherine Campbell photo)

What I personally found most interesting about her discussion was the way in which Sullivan linked the interpretive task of the biographer understood as metaphysical detective to the challenge that all of us have to make sense of our own stories. She described her own life as being shaped more by luck than by careful planning, commenting that “Serendipity has been the theme of my life.” And, she observed, her experience is true for most of us: every life is made up of contingency and chance, and the episodes which compose any life become coherent when we transform them into a narrative. When we do so, “All lives are integrated.”

Sullivan was asked a number of questions by audience members, many of whom also lined up to get her to do some book signing when the presentation was over. She generously spent time talking to each person, and kindly granted me a short interview. When asked how she was finding the festival, she stated that she was “having a wonderful time.”

As the festival participants and authors headed to the bar for pre-dinner drinks, and my companions and I headed for the parking lot so that we could get home before dark, I wished I had bought a pass for the whole weekend so that I could continue to talk about books with other passionate readers, and learn more about the craft of writing from those who have dedicated themselves to creating books for us to enjoy. Perhaps next year..

Rachel Haliburton


Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. She is working on a book that explores the ethical dimensions of detective fiction.




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