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A group of writers finds creative inspiration and community spirit in a remote Cape Breton village

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(photo: Steve Rankin)

In a busy café downtown, on a snowy Sunday afternoon, three writers sat down for lunch with a couple of visitors. The café – with its blond wood floors, bright orange chairs, and a pantry section offering high-end sauces, pickles, and jams for sale alongside locally made pottery – could be in any major Canadian city. But this is not Vancouver, or Toronto, or even Montreal. This is the Downstreet Café in Inverness, a small town perched on the western edge of Cape Breton Island, overlooking the Northumberland Strait and the North Atlantic.

Small as it is, Inverness is a bustling metropolis compared to where these writers live, in Margaree Forks and further up the road, in windswept Saint Joseph du Moine. The coastline here is rugged and beautiful, with views that are world-famous and highly sought after, but the Margaree Valley in Inverness County has almost certainly seen more outmigration in the last hundred years than it has hardy souls moving in.

That trend, however, may be changing. Thanks to this group of authors, who studied creative writing together at Concordia University in Montreal, there’s been a small but steady influx of newcomers to the Margaree Valley – fixing up rundown houses and fitting into the community – over the past six years.

It’s hard to say exactly how it started, though Rebecca Silver Slayter, whose debut novel, In the Land of Birdfishes, was published by HarperCollins in 2013, was surely at the heart of it. She’s a Nova Scotian, born and raised, having grown up in New Glasgow, a small town on the province’s North Shore. And though she didn’t find many kindred spirits there, she was determined to make her way back to rural Nova Scotia to live as an adult.

 from left to right: Oisín Curran, Sarah Faber, Conrad Taves, Rebecca Silver Slayter, Susan Paddon, and Matt Parsons

From left to right: Oisín Curran, Sarah Faber, Conrad Taves, Rebecca Silver Slayter, Susan Paddon, and Matt Parsons (photo: Steve Rankin)

“If you want a friend in Paris,” she says, “you’d best bring a friend. And it’s the same in rural Nova Scotia.” Especially, she notes, for “an oddball, read-y, write-y kind of person.” So when Slayter discovered that a Concordia classmate she barely knew owned land and a house in rural Nova Scotia, she “creepily” asked if they could be friends for life.

That classmate was Sarah Faber, whose book Lightning to the Children is forthcoming next spring from McClelland & Stewart. Faber and her husband, Oisín Curran (whose second novel is coming out next spring), have family connections in Margaree Valley. Curran recalls: “We’d been planning to move here for years, but, you know, we said, ‘Well, we’ll have Sarah’s parents and their friends, but who are we going to hang out with?’ And Sarah came home from that night with Rebecca and said, ‘Guess what?’”

A third piece of the puzzle fell into place not long afterward. Slayter and Faber were out at a pub with other classmates, among them poet Susan Paddon and novelist Catherine Cooper. Paddon and her partner, Matt Parsons, already had it in mind to move east, though, she admits, “We didn’t know what that meant. Just ‘move east.’ We looked at places online in Newfoundland. I had been there as a baby, but hadn’t been anywhere east of Montreal in years and years and years.” When she shared their plans with her writing colleagues at the pub, Slayter saw an opportunity to broaden the community before any of them even made a move. Paddon and Parsons were game, and so they too set their sights on Margaree.

Paddon and Parsons bought a serious fixer-upper in Margaree Forks (“Our house did not have good bones,” Paddon notes wryly), while Slayter and her partner, Conrad Taves, settled in nearby Acadian community Saint Joseph du Moine. Slayter says, “We had our wedding a couple months after arriving here, which we basically used as a PR event, to bring all our loved ones here and be like, wouldn’t you like to live here? Shall we show you some real estate?”

Although there have been trade-offs, Faber, Slayer, and Paddon say they are dedicating more time to their writing practises than they could in a more expensive city (photo: Steve Rankin)

Susan Paddon and Matt Parsons’s “serious fixer-upper” in Margaree Forks (photo: Steve Rankin)

One of those wedding guests was Johanna Skibsrud, the Scotiabank Giller Prize–winning author of The Sentimentalists, whom Slayter met at summer camp when they were both 13. “We stayed up all night talking and planning travel together and reading our poetry to each other and by dawn we were like, We’re best friends for life,” says Slayter.

When the house next door came up for sale a few years later, Skibsrud and her family purchased the property. Although they only live there a few months a year right now, Slayter has made plenty of other friends in the area. One recent mid-winter night found Slayter, Taves, Faber, Curran and other guests around the big harvest table in Paddon and Parsons’s kitchen.

The conversation turned to the various kinds of work they’ve done since landing in Inverness County six years ago. Paddon has worked at a wreath factory – a job she says earned her instant credibility among her rural neighbours – at a local gallery, at the Inverness Oran newspaper (where Slayter also worked as a reporter), at the library, and teaching yoga. Parsons is a substitute teacher who finds four or five days of work a week at nearby schools. Conrad Taves is an architect. That’s a tougher sell, though, he notes, he may well be the only architect in Inverness County, so he’s in line for any related work that comes along. Curran is a freelance writer, and he and Faber trade off child care and writing hours each day. But lower housing costs – Paddon and Parsons live off-grid, generating power from the brook that runs behind their house – mean they dedicate more time to writing than they could in a more expensive city.

The freedom to write is not just financial. “There is something about being beside the ocean and near the woods that is clarifying,” says Faber. “In the city I always had this undercurrent of discontent and feeling a bit agitated. And here, that goes away. It’s the only place I’ve ever been where I’ve felt that.”

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Although there have been trade-offs, Faber, Slayer, and Paddon say they are dedicating more time to their writing practises than they could in a more expensive city (photo: Steve Rankin)

Curran says the move has affected his writing in an unexpected way. “People here are in general curious about what I’m writing. That might influence me a bit in that I start thinking about writing for that audience. Being here makes me want to be a bit more accessible.”

Still they all acknowledge that while there are creative benefits to being outside the “rat race” of a larger city’s literary culture, there are no doubt opportunities they’re missing out on.

“I think it would have been easier with my first book had I lived in an urban centre,” says Slayter. “There’s a lot that goes on in Nova Scotia, but here, you’re pretty far from a lot of that. It’s not insurmountable, but it has occasionally occurred to me that we are definitely outside of the literary circuit.”

On the other hand, Inverness County has been home to world-famous artists for decades, with full- or part-time residents like Richard Serra, Philip Glass, Robert Frank, June Leaf, and perhaps the area’s most famous writer, Alistair Macleod. The isolated location didn’t damage any of those careers. And this group of friends is dedicated to contributing to their new home – there’s lots of talk of the various committees on which they serve, and the opportunity to work alongside their neighbours at improving life in Inverness County, in a way none of them can imagine contributing in Toronto or Montreal.

“This has been my dream for all my life, to be a writer, with so many wonderful friends, and be living somewhere near the sea in rural Nova Scotia,” says Slayter. “Now, I have that. What do I do next?” (photo: Ian Rankin)

“This has been my dream for all my life, to be a writer, with so many wonderful friends, and be living somewhere near the sea in rural Nova Scotia,” says Slayter. “Now, I have that. What do I do next?” (photo: Ian Rankin)

The community is involved in their lives, too, leaving baskets of baked goods on the front step – or even, sometimes, right inside on the kitchen table – helping with snow clearing, and offering advice on rural living (get a cat, and buy the value pack of hot dogs when you find yourself in a large grocery store in the island’s only city, as Paddon was instructed by one concerned neighbour.) There’s also an annual one-day literary festival on July 1, which has drawn the likes of Carol Off and Lynn Coady (who both have family ties to the area), and at which Faber will read this year.

But what surprises this group most about their move en masse to Inverness is, as Slayter puts it, that it’s working. Six years on, these friends are home to stay, and Slayter and Paddon are always working on other writers, trying to convince them to make the move too. Meanwhile, Slayter is feeling pretty satisfied.

“This has been my dream for all my life, to be a writer, with so many wonderful friends, and be living somewhere near the sea in rural Nova Scotia. Now, I have that. What do I do next?” She pauses. “It is kind of strange to get to the end of your dreams and plans, but there’s always the next book.” Which for Slayter, will be written near a rugged shore, surrounded by kindred spirits. – Stephanie Domet