Literary festivals can be considered the teenage boys of the Canadian festival circuit. Slightly gawky with moments of pure beauty, they tend to be overshadowed by the popular kids: sport competitions, celebrity-studded film galas and debauchery-filled music festivals.
Those of us who frequent literary events know that location is partly to blame. Big-city book festivals often take place in makeshift, impersonal venues cluttered with wobbly tables and unfolded chairs. Occasionally, ambitious organizers will attempt a rundown café atmosphere-tea lights adorning checkered tablecloths; plastic glasses of Chardonnay donated from a local winery. I once received a flirty wink from a well-known Toronto literary lad over a tray of curling cheddar triangles.
Over the past twenty years, however, there's been another group of festivals intent on rebelling against the socially awkward city scene. Tucked away inside small towns and villages, these lesser-known events are cashing in on rustic charm. Communities such as Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. and Sechelt, British Columbia, offer smaller festivals that can act as breaks from the monotony of the larger ones, and provide an intimate experience for readers and authors alike.
Eden Mills-population 500-is the host of one such festival. Every September, those in the know make the trek to this picturesque hamlet on the banks of the Eramosa River, just east of Guelph, Ontario. Started in 1989 by author and former resident Leon Rooke, the Eden Mills Writers' Festival was born without any great aspirations-although by CanLit standards, the inaugural lineup was certainly impressive. Rooke, who was living with his wife Constance in the former stagecoach hotel, invited a few of his writer friends-including Rohinton Mistry, Michael Ondaatje and Linda Spalding-for a public reading in front of the general store. That initial crowd of 350 has grown into an annual attendance of 2,000 over the past sixteen years.
Jane Hastings is the volunteer operations director for the festival. She started offering her time in 1996 by working the admissions gate, which she describes as "loosey-goosey," before taking over the reins. Unlike larger events with paid staff-such as Toronto's International Festival of Authors or Montreal's Blue Metropolis-the non-profit organization relies on a group of fifty volunteers for every aspect of fundraising, operations, publicity, author selection and entertainment.
This is a necessary practice for most of the country's smaller, less lucrative literary festivals. At Eden Mills, all five reading sites are privately owned and none of the local proprietors charge for the use of their property. Other residents provide free access to their electricity and parking areas. As a non-profit organization, the festival also relies on sponsorship from the Ontario Arts Council, the Canada Council for the Arts, the Musagetes Fund (from nearby Kitchener-Waterloo), plus corporate sponsorships from the Upper Canada Brewing Company, Random House and local businesses.
According to a visitors' survey, the majority of the Eden Mills crowd are readers, authors, enthusiasts and publishers from the surrounding area-places like Milton, London, Kitchener and Burlington. A bus even shuttles people from Guelph to the reading sites. Yet a healthy portion of the audience-approximately 25 percent-makes the journey up Highway 401 from lit-rich Toronto.
Why leave the city? "It's the pastoral setting. All of the venues are outside; they're all amphitheatre-style and overlooking water," Hastings explains. "We have a good selection committee who know literature and we've had Giller Prize winners, and [Governor General's Award] winners. There's a combination of French, English and prose-it's well balanced. Also, out of twenty-seven authors that we get in, [our patrons] get to choose to hear nine. Oh, and we also have really good food."
In other words, a different crowd will line up at Toronto's Harbourfront this October to hear John Irving than the one which will pay ten dollars to attend Eden Mills for Catherine Bush, Sue Goyette, Alistair MacLeod and Joseph Boyden (although, with all the attention that Boyden is receiving for his debut, Three Day Road, it may be difficult to book him in future years). Listeners will also have a chance to bring their kids to the children's author series and to be exposed to Eden Mills' fringe program for new writers, three of whom were published following their Eden Mills debuts.
Hastings acknowledges that although the festival is important for emerging and lesser-known writers, household names do help ticket sales. The selection committee always makes an effort to bring in the big guns. It's hit and miss: Yann Martel was scheduled to read after he won the Giller Prize for Life of Pi, but cancelled due to a change in travel plans. "Lately we haven't had Margaret Atwood," admits Hastings. "We haven't had Rohinton Mistry. If we had those big names like we did in '95 and again in '98, it draws a bigger crowd."
The reason most people attend Eden Mills is the same reason they attend any literary event: to get close to those who spin the words. But even in this respect, small festivals offer something that the urban ones cannot. The first year I attended the festival was 1995, and the attendance had swelled to 3,000. It was a literary gawkfest: I watched Mordecai Richler down by the old mill, gingerly strolling on the arm of his wife Florence. I perched next to Barbara Gowdy under a large riverbank tree, never quite mustering up enough courage to reveal that her words had changed my life.
"The people who come know literature, they know the smaller-name authors," says Hastings. And the authors-both the well-known and the not-so-well-known-love Eden Mills. "The authors that come are thrilled because they're treated like royalty. They're wined and dined. What's different about our festival is that they're all together throughout the weekend."
Authors bunk at the Stone Gables Manor, a forested haven along the Niagara Escarpment just outside of Eden Mills. During festival hours, Jenny's Place is the local hangout for writers wanting to escape the crowds. "It's a good chance for authors to meet each other and hang out. That's different from Harbourfront and many other festivals, which are held over a couple of weeks," Hastings explains.
The proof is in the authors' own eloquent words. Writer Antanas Sileika calls the festival a "bucolic fantasy" with Brigadoon aspirations. K. D. Miller mentioned that, during her reading, two fish jumped in the river while a butterfly caught her peripheral vision. Irene Guilford calls Eden Mills "magic for a first-time author," reminiscing over the thrill of getting soused with Alistair MacLeod.
For those without a book published (yet), for those who live outside the county's largest metropolises or for those who just love a good story; there's no better place in the world to be than lying on Eden Mills' grassy fields while words and cool breezes sweep over you.
The Eden Mills Festival will be held from September 9 to 11. Information regarding travel and programming can be found at www.edenmillswritersfestival.ca.