frequently asked questions

Where is MiddleGate?

The Serpent's Spell
, Amber Ambrosia, Fish & Sphinx and Kingdom of Trolls are all set in never-never-now in the secret city of MiddleGate, tucked away and hidden in Winnipeg's Exchange District in Manitoba, Canada.

And where is Winnipeg, you ask? It's practically at the centre of North America!

Winnipeg, almost the centre of North America

And the magical portal to the world of MiddleGate is through Winnipeg's historic Kelly House. A lot of the action happens at the snake dens of Narcisse, Manitoba too!

Where do ideas for The MiddleGate Books come from?

The MiddleGate Books are inspired by the red-sided garter snakes of Narcisse and Inwood, Manitoba. These garter snakes brumate together by the tens of thousands in limestone caves over the winter months, and then emerge by the thousands in spring-time. Their mass brumation (brumation is similar to the hibernation of mammals) is unique in the world, and an estimated 50,000 people come annually from all over North America and beyond to visit the dens. Watch exciting footage in a Radio-Canada film about the red-sided gartersnakes (en français)—look for the link to vidéo. More information about these snakes (films, learning activities, etc.) are posted under the Teachers page.

Many societies around the world revere snakes, although within Judeo-Christian mythology the serpent is most often regarded as a tempter. Aztec mythology speaks about the plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl. Hindu mythology features Sesha, the thousand-headed serpent. Typhon in Greek mythology is a monster-serpent, whose head touches the stars. Snakes play important ecological roles through controlling rodent populations and snake venom has been useful for treating human diseases. Unfortunately, many snake habitats are now being threatened by human activity, including the snake dens at Narcisse.

Many MiddleGate's figures of speech feature snakes. Here are some of the snake idioms you'll find as you read the MiddleGate Books.

How do you draw your illustrations?

I love working with an ordinary pencil (there is nothing quite as nice as a freshly sharpened pencil), a rubber eraser (there is nothing quite as nice as a brand new eraser), watercolour paper, an old-fashioned quill pen (usually a crow quill pen nib), a bottle of India ink and PanPastels. (You have to be careful because it's a real mess if that bottle of ink spills. ADVICE: Do not wear your best clothes when working with ink, or any art materials, for that matter!) I carry a small sketchbook with me everywhere. You never know when you'll have an idea for a drawing.
If you'd like to see where I often write and draw, here's my studio. I have been an artist for many years. Click to view sculptures, photography and quiltworks.

How long does it take to write a book?

Between the time of writing the first sentence of The Serpent's Spell and finishing the first drafta year and a half. The book was published five years later. [Note:That first sentence changed many, many times!] I wrote the book on the weekends and late at night when my children were asleep. The second book, Amber Ambrosia, took five months to write and illustrate. (I wrote it during a sabbatical from the university.) I like to keep a writing logbook, so I can look back to see what decisions I made and why. The logbook is like a friend who listens to all the ups and downs of writing and illustrating a book. I have an hourglass filled with white sand that sits on my writing desk, and the sand falls through as I write.

Did you always dream of being an author?

I devoured a book or two a day when I was a child, and writing has always been part of my work as an artist and university professor. When I began to have my own children, we often read books out loud together. One night we were reading and I said, I want to write a book for you, and illustrate it too!

What are your favourite books?

Some of my favourite books when I was a child...I adored The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum; I also loved reading Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron (and still do!). When I was older, I read many of Agatha Christie's and Charles Dickens' books. Some of my favourite children's books now are T.H. White's Once and Future King, Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart series, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books and Jenny Nimmo's Charlie Bone stories, as well as the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman, Angie Sage, among many, many others. Some of my favourite old-time illustrations (pen-and-ink drawings) are those by Frank Ver Beck in The Magical Monarch of Mo by L. Frank Baum, and the contemporary pen-and-ink whimsies in China Miéville's Un Lun Dun. My favourite illustrator is Australia's Shaun Tan.

Read the article Imaginary Friends by Ursula K. Le Guin: Many of us have at least one book or tale that we read as a child and come back to now and then for the rest of our lives....

What's your advice for people who want to be authors?

Write, write, write. Read, read, read---learn the “tricks of the trade” from other writers. Learn as many new juicy words as you can, so that you have lots of “tools” in your toolbox. Hang out with people who like to write or draw.

And “hanging out” can mean a lot of things!

    • scheme with like-minded friends
    • attend local or explore online writing workshops and webinars, or mentoring opportunities
    • attend readings of your favourite authors (many authors are now offering readings online)
    • become a member of your local writers’ association, like the Manitoba Writers’ Guild, as you’ll receive weekly or monthly e-newsletters announcing all the great writing events happening near and far
    • check out some of my links to resources for writers and illustrators.

Have you written any other books?

Although The Serpent's Spell, Amber Ambrosia, Fish & Sphinx and Kingdom of Trolls are fantasy novels, I’ve also written several books and many articles about homelessness in Canada. (Read more about my research.)


to the magical and
secret city of MIDDLEGATE

Historic Kelly House, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Historic Kelly House, 88 Adelaide Street
Winnipeg, Manitoba -
as it was when I first saw it in 2001

Kelly House in 2011
The Kelly House, after it was renovated, 2001
[photo by Gordon Goldsborough]






Photograph of red-sided garter snake

Red-sided garter snakes’ North American territory ranges from the Northwest Territories south to Oklahoma, east to Ontario and west to British Columbia...through the 3 Prairie provinces (Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan), parts of northern Ontario and western British Columbia, as well as 11 midwestern states (Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Oklahoma, Wyoming), even parts of New Mexico.

Learn more about Manitoba's red-sided garter snakes (scientific name: Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis). Special fencing has protected the snakes when they cross the highway. Read an informal account of a visit to the Narcisse snake dens in the off-season, by Jonathan Crowe—he also maintains a great website devoted to Garter Snake News, with links to articles and resources.

The Serpent's Spell features another kind of snake—an African egg-eating snake (scientific name: Dasypeltis scabra).

Visit the Westman Reptile Gardens near Brandon, Manitoba. Further east, Reptilia is a large reptile zoo in the Toronto area. It offers educational programs as well as resources for pet owners about the proper care of their reptiles and amphibians.





Illustration of ink bottle and quill pen, by Rae Bridgman