The Eden Mills Writers’ Festival was founded in 1989 and has taken place annually since then. Although it started out as the fulfillment of Governor General Award winner Leon Rooke’s personal vision, the Festival has matured and expanded over the years becoming a nationally acclaimed and widely respected literary event that still maintains a small “footprint.”
In 1989, the first public readings took place outside the old General Store in the centre of Eden Mills. At that time Leon Rooke and his wife Constance were living in the former stagecoach hotel on the other side of the street. The store owners, Don and Mark Holman, suggested that Leon should launch his latest novel, A Good Baby, from the stone platform outside their property. Leon invited other writers, including Rohinton Mistry, Michael Ondaatje, Jane Urquhart, and Linda Spalding to join in the fun. An audience of 350 materialized and the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival was born.
Audiences of several thousand now come to the Festival each year from near and far to enjoy the unique mix of bucolic surroundings, great literature, and relaxed ambiance. In Leon Rooke’s words, Eden Mills is a place “where new writers are introduced to a large audience and established writers are newly engaged.”
Mixing together writers of different experience has had many happy results. In 1997, the newly published Andrew Pyper opened a set that included Michael Ondaatje. Andrew was so impressed by the huge audience waiting expectantly at the Meadow site that he started his reading by taking a souvenir photograph of the assembled company. The audience was immediately won over, and at the subsequent book signing, Andrew’s line-up rivalled Michael’s.
Over the years, the Festival has taken place in different Eden Mills venues and was located once at the Bookshelf in Guelph. For the last few years, it has taken place in three beautiful open-air sites on the banks of the Eramosa river. In addition to the main venues, there is an established and extremely well-liked Children’s Site (Jenny’s Place) that runs continuously throughout the afternoon. There are also Fringe and Young Adult readings. Announcements of the winners of the Festival’s two annual literary competitions are also made.
Come for the words.
In addition to readings, the Festival also features Publishers’ Way, where publishers, booksellers, magazine producers, and non-profit groups such as PEN showcase their wares. This is also where authors sign their books. Live music entertains between reading sets, and delicious refreshments can be enjoyed in the tented food court. In 2004, the Festival launched an annual Rides for Readers program, which provides free entry and transportation to the Festival for around 200 new members of the community.
The Festival has no paid staff. It is organized by the eight-person board (six of whom are Eden Mills residents) and committees drawn from the general membership of 50 people for fundraising, operations, publicity, author selection, entertainment, and music. We also have the help of 60 volunteers on the day of the Festival. Despite its size, Eden Mills has a disproportionately high number of residents who are writers and illustrators. There is an invaluable critical mass of local people who are dedicated to Canadian literature and devoted to the continuing success of the Festival. The five reading sites are each privately owned by different residents, none of whom charge for the use of their property. Similarly, other residents provide free access to their electricity and parking areas. This generosity together with the much-appreciated support from the Festival’s sponsors enable ticket prices to be kept low.
The Festival is now in its 24th consecutive year and continuity has been well maintained over this time. Experience has taught that our core activities of open-air readings by professional writers—some famous, some new—appeals most to our audience. Nevertheless, the Festival is constantly evolving and appealing to new constituencies. We have, for instance, run various seminars during Festival weekend, and often feature lectures leading up to Festival Sunday. Check out Workshops and Seminars, or sign up to receive our monthly newsletters to hear the latest on this year’s events.
See you at the Festival!