Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Five Things Literary: Cape Breton, Nova Scotia with Rebecca Silver Slayter

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Rebecca Silver Slayter

In our Five Things Literary series, we bring you into the literary life of individual authors and the communities that nurture and inspire them.

Debut novelist Rebecca Silver Slayter, who lives and writes in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, is the author of In The Land of Birdfishes (HarperCollins Canada), a harrowing tale of a sister searching for her twin after decades apart.

Today Rebecca takes us on a literary tour of Cape Breton, an island which has given Canada a wealth of talented writers and served as the setting for many of our most enduring stories. From delicious and mysterious dinner parties to the legacy of the mines, Rebecca's account will have you falling in love with Cape Breton, just as she has.

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Five Things Literary: Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Ray Smith revealed the secret back in 1969: Cape Breton is the Thought Control Centre of Canada. He knew because he was a local, raised in Mabou, on Cape Breton’s western shore. But mostly Cape Bretoners try to keep quiet about the secret pull this island has on the country’s imagination. There are lots of reasons to be suspicious though; think how many writers have sprung from this tiny island (Alistair MacLeod, Hugh MacLennan, Don Domanski, Lynn Coady..) and how many Canadian novels have been set here (from Fall on Your Knees to The Bishop’s Man). It’s a richly storied place that seems to either lure or manufacture writers to tell its tales. For me, Cape Breton is a wonder, a source of endless inspiration and the perfect blend of serenity and community to foster a writing life. A place where people know the truths that tall tales tell. Here are a few of my favourite places to write and read on this island.

  1. The Dancing River Sprite literary feasts
    • Two of the great pleasures of life come together under the roof of this rambling, pink 19th-century farmhouse in Middle River, Cape Breton. One weekend a month, owners George Smith and Cora-Lee Eisses serve up a series of literary dinner parties, inviting anyone who can find a seat at the table to bring their own wine, pay what they can and enjoy an incredible six-course meal.

      Each month, a different book is chosen as the dinner theme, and while George gets cooking in the kitchen, Cora-Lee, beautifully costumed as the book’s protagonist, greets guests. Periodically, the immense resident turkey staggers past the window outside, cackling, and shocks everyone, conversation dissolving into startled laughter. I’ve made some wonderful friends at these dinners, chatting about the book and taking turns guessing at each course’s ingredients from the cryptic, pun-ful menu, a game that often continues even after everyone’s plate is cleared. (I never get it right, but I love guessing.)

      Fortunately, George emerges from the kitchen after every dish to tell us what we’ve just eaten and explain the often-complex food chemistry behind it, while Cora-Lee talks about the dish’s connection with the book and sometimes even treats us to a reading. The food is amazing, creative and locally sourced as much as possible (leading to especially innovative dishes in the months before and after things really get growing in Cape Breton; in early spring, for instance, George manages incredible things with dandelions and ground ivy), and the company is even better. We usually encounter books so privately, which is why reading is such an intimate thing, like a love affair. But I love getting to experience reading as something shared between strangers and friends.

     

  2. Inverness, Nova Scotia
    • Inverness is a close-knit community with a very long memory — and is a constant source of inspiration to me. It’s a place of contrasts — a kind of gritty, no-nonsense character combined with a vibrant arts community and thriving Celtic culture; a vast stretch of golden beach that lies over top of a network of former coal seams, which run for a kilometre under the surface of the sea. The rich stories of this community have inspired works by local authors Alistair MacLeod and Frank MacDonald, and municipal leaders are discussing the possibility of developing a “Gaelic Forest,” a detail taken straight from MacDonald’s novel A Forest for Calum: using the Gaelic alphabet, where each letter corresponds with a tree or plant, a series of trees can spell out a poem. I very much hope this project comes to pass, and look forward to going for a stroll within the Gaelic language, finding in Inverness a unique entry into literature and words.

     

  3. The Lone Sheiling
    • Just off the Cabot Trail near stunning Pleasant Bay is the Lone Sheiling. Set amidst a stand of old-growth maple in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, the cabin was built in the 1950s and designed to replicate a Scottish crofter’s hut. Its thatched roof and stone walls conjure up the austere lives of those isolated early settlers, and its name was inspired by the early 19th century poem “Canadian Boat Song.” The poem, thought to be written by either Scottish physician David Macbeth Moir (who never came to Canada) or his correspondent John Galt (who did), speaks of the exiled Highlanders’ longing to return to their country: “Fair these broad meads — these hoary woods are grand;/But we are exiles from our fathers’ land.” I love to walk here under the ancient trees, those hoary woods still grand.

     

  4. Cabot Trail Writers’ Festival
    • This annual festival takes place in late September, in the community of North River on the Cabot Trail. Readings, workshops, dinners and other literary events bring writers and readers together, as autumn makes the island even more beautiful, setting the trees ablaze with colour. There’s something wonderfully alive about the collision of literature and Cape Breton at these packed and high-spirited events.

     

  5. The Cape Breton Miners’ Museum
    • I have always loved Sheldon Currie’s short story/novella The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum (also adapted into the wonderful film Margaret’s Museum) and so I couldn’t keep it from my mind my first time visiting the real miners’ museum in Glace Bay (though I must confess I was relieved to find that nothing pickled was involved).

      The highlight of the museum is the Ocean Deeps Coilery, a mine shaft visitors can descend into, exploring the tunnels and junctures, stooping, as coal miners once did, to make their way forward in the dimly lit dark. I have always been fascinated by mining and by miners — by the hardship and unexpected joys of that life (so many former miners I’ve spoken to miss it terribly; it’s the sense of fellowship I think). Mining is also the prevailing metaphor for writing for me. I often think — grasping for a word or turn of phrase or the next moment’s action in a story — of going underground, of moving forward in the darkness, scraping away at what lies beneath, in hopes of returning to the surface with something of worth. It is both troubling and fascinating to experience the literal correlative of my constant metaphor.


Rebecca Silver Slayter’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in such publications as The Antigonish Review, The Hart House Review, Brick, Rabble.ca, Quill & Quire and The Walrus. She has received numerous awards and scholarships, including the David McKeen Award for Best Creative Writing Thesis for In the Land of Birdfishes. She lives in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

For more information about In The Land of Birdfishes please visit the HarperCollins Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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