News and Interviews

Ontario's Biggest Small Town Festival: How Eden Mills Became One of the Most Unique Literary Destinations in the Province

Eden mills

The Eden Mills Writers' Festival is a unique experience in the busy CanLit event calendar - pastoral, open and supportive, and tucked into the heart of the countryside outside of Guelph, it's the only place you'll find bestselling authors reading outside beside an century-old mill or a hundred book lovers sprawled on a picturesque hillside listening to a poetry reading. 

For 2019, the festival runs from September 6 to 8, with writing workshops, programming for kids and young adults, and readings and discussions covering all genres of literature. Check out the festival website for a full line up and schedule, including the full Festival Sunday schedule, as well as ticketing information.

We got to speak to Hélène Duguay, Chair of the board at Eden Mills Writers' Festival, about the history of this special event and what the future holds for EMWF. 

She shares with us about how the festival grew out of a handful of (very literary) friends gathering to support each other 31 years ago, some exciting highlights for the 2019 festival (including a book birthday party!), and how the complex programming process works each year. 

And stay tuned to Open Book for more on EMWF, including an upcoming interview with festival guest authors. 

Open Book:

Tell us a little bit about the history of Eden Mills and how it began.

Hélène Duguay:

The Eden Mills Writers’ Festival (EMWF) was conceived and realized by Leon and Connie Rooke, former residents of Eden Mills. In 1989, Leon, a Governor General award-winning author, had a new book coming out in September. The Rookes invited a few friends - Jane Urquhart, Michael Ondaatje, and Rohinton Mistry - to join Leon on the front steps of the former general store in Eden Mills. They read to a crowd of 300 and the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival was born.

Since then, the EMWF has evolved into a three day showcase of CanLit legends and rising literary stars. Over the years, we’ve presented a veritable who’s who of established and emerging authors including such favourites as Margaret Atwood, Alistair MacLeod, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Lawrence Hill, and Kim Thuy.

In time, the festival added programming for children and teens, writing workshops for adults and youth, and literary writing contests. Thirty-one years later, we’re proud to present a sensational lineup of programming and presenters for all ages.


What makes Eden Mills unique as a festival? How do you view its identity as a literary event?


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The most unique aspect of the EMWF is its idyllic setting. Festival Sunday, our main event, takes place outdoors in the centre of Eden Mills, a hamlet of century-old stone homes nestled along the Eramosa River. The main street is closed to traffic and festival goers lounge on blankets or lawn chairs at lovely sites, several of which are along the river and all of which are owned by village residents. Our only indoor site is a former stone chapel built in 1861 by Eden Mills’ Methodist congregation. The village provides a charming, welcoming and approachable setting in which to experience great literature. 

As a literary event, we strive, through our author selection and programming, to create community and connection by presenting works of literary merit that represent what it means to be Canadian in all its glorious diversity. 


What are some aspects of the 2019 festival you're most excited about? What shapes your programming choices at Eden Mills?


We have a sensational line up once again this year, where should I begin? I’m looking forward to the interesting, and somewhat unexpected, pairing of Marina Endicott and Guy Gavriel Kay in conversation on Opening Night, and the wonderful writing workshops led by Alix Ohlin, Anakana Schofield, Cecil Foster, and Marie-Louise Gay on Saturday. On Sunday, we have over 50 adult, children, and YA presenters to choose from. Highlights for me are the graphic novels we will be presenting for the first time in a set hosted by Jennifer Haines who is the owner of Guelph’s comic and game store, The Dragon, and the birthday party we will be holding in the children’s area for Marie-Louise Gay’s Stella. Stella’s turning 20! I’m also excited about the presentation of more sessions that include shorter readings followed by moderated discussions.

Traditionally, the EMWF has primarily featured readings grouped by a theme. This year, we are excited to introduce a greater variety of session formats, including interviews, panel discussions, and conversations. So, whether someone is attending to see an author they love, or they aren’t familiar with the names on the panel, the themes may connect to their interests or experience and draw them to the event. We’re also excited to pair emerging/debut authors with well-known and bestselling writers in order to introduce them to new audiences and hopefully encourage the sale of their books. In addition to this, we’re excited to be hosting more authors than ever before – including two sessions dedicated to Canadian poetry. There will be something for everyone at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival this year!

Programming selections for the event are made with groupings of three authors per hour, by theme in mind. Our Artistic Director meets and speaks with publishers from across the country, reviewing submissions and getting a feel for the huge number of amazing books being published in Canada in the current festival year. We pride ourselves on offering live literary experiences usually only available in large urban centres. Our programming aims to: shine a spotlight on authors from coast to coast, represent a mix of small and large publishers, provide a platform for a balance of established and emerging authors, ensure there is something for readers of all ages and interests, and introduce our audience to a range of diverse Canadian perspectives. Throw all this into the mix, and the decision-making process is exciting, inspiring and incredibly difficult! There are a great number of wonderful books that don’t make the cut simply because we have a limit to the number of authors we can invite. That’s why this year, our Artistic Director sought additional funding to feature more authors – the weight of making the programming decisions were keeping her awake at night.


Do you have a favourite festival memory or story you can share?


The festival is a relaxed experience for patrons and presenters alike. One never knows what might happen. One recent favourite moment is a spontaneous, boisterous poetry reading in the middle of the main festival thoroughfare by Leon Rooke, George Elliott Clarke, and Nicholas Ruddock. Another very special memory is last year’s moving rendition of O Canada by Indigenous poet Carol Rose Daniels at the opening ceremony on Festival Sunday. Carol gave new meaning to our national anthem. Come to the festival prepared to be surprised and enchanted!


How have the Eden Mills and surrounding communities embraced the festival?


The EMWF is a literary event of national significance, yet it remains very much community-driven. Eden Mills residents have embraced the festival wholeheartedly over the past 31 years, offering up their properties as presentation sites, baking pies for our dinner for presenters and volunteers who have worked all day, and volunteering in large numbers to set up and take down the sites, drive our courtesy golf carts, and staff the gates and information booth. We are particularly grateful this year that the new owners of three of our sites have enthusiastically agreed to let the festival take over their gardens as presentation sites.  Several board members and many of our volunteers come from Guelph and surrounding communities. Thanks to our wonderful volunteers, the Festival is renowned for its warm and welcoming atmosphere. It is something that makes us unique among literary festivals and for which we are heavily indebted to the community. 


When you think about Eden Mills ten or twenty years down the road, what are your hopes for the future of the festival?


We hope that our efforts equip our community with the insight and understanding required to address the pressing issues of our time. We believe in the power of literature, and more broadly, the arts, to foster empathy, to heal wounds, and ultimately, to bring about necessary change.


Every September since 1989, the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival has been offering readers a showcase of established and emerging Canadian writing in the village in Eden Mills. A hamlet of 350 residents with century-old stone buildings nestled along the Eramosa River, Eden Mills is 15 minutes east of Guelph and 1 hour west of Toronto.  On festival day, village streets are closed to traffic, and the community of festival goers lounge on the grass, on blankets, or in lawn chairs to enjoy readings from some of Canada’s very finest writers and most exciting new talents.  Accessible, shaded seating is also available at every venue. The festival features food trucks and vendors, a licensed patio, and a book market along the main street that includes an authors’ book signing tent.  Approachable and welcoming, the village festival offers readers an idyllic outdoor setting to laze away an early autumn day in the grass among friends and in the company of authors.

The festival presents 40 to 50 established and emerging Canadian writers every year including fiction writers, poets, nonfiction writers, playwrights, spoken word poets, young adult and children’s authors.  It also features the winners of the festival’s writing competitions for new talent, Guelph-area writers, and MFA students from the Guelph/Humber MFA in Creative Writing. 

For more information about Eden Mills Writers' Festival and a complete author line up, visit their website