No. 100 in the books for local publisher
SYDNEY — A local book publisher is about to mark an important chapter in Cape Breton literary history.
Breton Books will launch its 100th book, The Woman From Away: The Collected Writing of Cape Breton’s Tessie Gillis, Thursday from 4-6 p.m. at the McConnell Library in Sydney. The big event — which will be held on what would have been Gillis’ 100th birthday — will feature readings from her work by Sheldon Currie, Paul MacDougall, Teresa O’Brien, Frank Macdonald and Tessie’s daughter, Helena Gillis MacLeod.
Breton Books publisher Ron Caplan said it seems fitting to have this book as its 100th publication because Gillis opened the door for much of the modern writing that’s come out of Cape Breton over the last few decades.
“ Tessie Gillis is considered by many as the godmother of Cape Breton fiction. She’s the woman who had the courage to write about the darker side of Cape Breton Island and Cape Breton stories so she wrote about, among other things, domestic abuse, alcoholism and the heavy weight of rural life on people, but at the same time she wrote about it with humour and compassion,” he said.
Caplan said he’s thrilled that Breton Books, a venture started in honour of his daughter Breton in the late 1970s, has turned out to be such an enduring success story.
“I never thought about that. To me it was ‘ What can I do each year?’ and we were doing four to six books a year. It started out with the idea of classics, keeping alive a lot of the books that I felt really told the Cape Breton Island story and yet weren’t available,” he said, noting as examples, The Cape Breton Giant by James D. Gillis, Highland Settler by Charles Dunn, The Highland Heart in Nova Scotia by Neil MacNeil, and G.G. Campbell’s Castaway on Cape Breton. “ These were books that seemed to me to be gems. I consider them what I call Cape Breton classics and I just thought everyone should have an opportunity to read them.”
Once those classics began to resurface on book store shelves, Caplan said local writers saw the publishing company as an opportunity to get their own work out there.
“ We began receiving submissions and we published such books as Mary Ann Ducharme’s wonderful biography of Archie Neil Chisholm, which has continued to sell since it was first published,” he said.
Other original material published by Breton Books over the years includes poetry by Stewart Donovan, Aaron Schneider and Denise Aucoin, fiction by Teresa O’Brien, Susan Zettell, Lynn Coady, Sherry Ramsey, renowned author Beatrice MacNeil’s first book, The Moonlight Skater, and Sheldon Currie’s novel The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum, a bestseller that became the movie Margaret’s Museum.
“Between the classics, the material that was submitted and little collections from Cape Breton’s Magazine ... you wake up one day and you realize you’re about to publish your 100th book,” said Caplan. “Cape Bretoners are interested in their own story and they’re interested in good storytelling. You put that combination together in a book and you have a book that they will buy.”
So what keeps Caplan motivated after all these years?
“I continue to be interested in stories and I continue to be surprised, shocked and deeply moved, really, by stories. I’m just very fortunate to find something that appeals to my interests in both history and storytelling and poetry and it comes together wonderfully in the publishing of Breton Books,” he said. “I look forward to book 101.”