Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

13.3: What Writers Get Wrong, with Aliette de Bodard

Your Hosts: Dan, Mary, Aliette, and Howard

This year’s third-week episodes will all follow a common theme: “what writers get wrong.” Each of these episodes will feature an expert guest who will help us understand what writers get wrong about something in which they have expertise.

Aliette de Bodard will be co-hosting several of these week-three episodes, but this week her role is “subject matter expert.” She has several fields of expertise, and among the hats she expertly wears which writers often fail to correctly describe is a hat labeled “motherhood” (note: not an actual hat.) 

Credits: This episode was recorded at WXR 2017 in the Baltic Sea by Bert Grimm, and mastered on dry land by Alex Jackson.

Homework: List the subject matter experts in your life. Make checks next to their names this year as you speak with them about their expertise (it’s like a to-do list.)

Thing of the week: The House of Shattered Wings (Book 1 of Dominion of The Fallen), by Aliette de Bodard.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: What do writers get wrong about pregnancy and motherhood? First, even though pregnancies, children, and motherhood are common in real life, in fiction, they often disappear. Pregnancies often are depicted almost as Alien, a monster taking over your body and emerging. There are also things to love, like the baby moving. Amazing? The baby taking its first breath. Or the organs shifting back into place. Surprising? When the brother or father finds out what it’s really like! The way a pregnant woman, especially late in pregnancy, stands up. Very cautious. The little problems of pregnancy, like vitamin shortages. The length of time labor takes! Cross your fingers, and pack the wound with moss. 

[Mary] Season 13, Episode Three.
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, What Do Writers Get Wrong?
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Aliette] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And this is going to take all year.
[Dan] Because we get so much wrong. I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Aliette] I’m Aliette.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] Yes, we have Aliette de Bodard with us. She is one of our cohosts for 2018. We are very excited to have her. Can you introduce yourself a little bit for us?
[Aliette] Yes. I’m Aliette de Bodard. When I don’t write, I work as a systems engineer. I design basically large train systems, which always makes my sons very happy. So, I’m also a mother of two very young children. I write fantasy and science fiction, heavily inspired by history.

[Dan] Fantastic. We are excited to have you on, especially for this topic. A lot of the episodes that we’ll be doing with Aliette are a new, cool thing that we are planning for 2018.
[Mary] So, what we’ve been doing is through most of the life of Writing Excuses, we’ve focused on the process of writing. These episodes, in contrast to what we usually do… Most of our episodes are involving us telling the way to write instead of showing it, so… It’s inevitable, I mean, really with this kind of instruction. We’ve been searching for ways to provide you with more practical knowledge. So, this year, while focusing on how to write character, we thought we’d invite on people with individual expertise or life experience with something that’s often represented wrong in media. We’re calling it What Do Writers Get Wrong, and hope to have an episode a month on a topic. We hope this, instead of being a bunch of people talking about how you should write, will give you a resource you can use when you’re writing, however you see fit. So Aliette is going to be with us for most of these episodes. We thought that, just to give a kind of an idea of what it looks like, that we would use Aliette as kind of a useful representative example. One of the things about these episodes is that they are not necessarily going to reduce people to a single facet. We want to remind you that people are not single facet entities. So, for instance, if we’re doing a what do people… What do writers get wrong about Aliette’s life experience, we could pick…
[Aliette] French culture? Vietnamese culture? Software engineering? That’s always fun.
[Mary] Trains.
[Aliette] Pregnancy and motherhood. Raising children in general.
[Dan] Or even a combination of Vietnamese and French cultures.
[Aliette] Yeah.
[Dan] Moving from one to the other and what it’s like.
[Aliette] Yeah. Or Vietnamese-French diaspora.
[Mary] Yeah. So there’s a ton of things that we could cover. So, for this episode… And just as a reminder, that any time we’re doing one of these episodes, with a guest, we are going to pick one aspect to focus on, to give a little bit… So we can go deep into that, rather than broad into… So, with Aliette, for this episode, as our first one as an example episode… What are we going to focus on with you, Aliette? What do writers get wrong about…
[Aliette] Pregnancy and motherhood?
[Mary] Pregnancy and motherhood.

[Dan] Nice. I have never personally been a mother…
[Aliette] I’m sure, however…
[Dan] But my wife has…
[Aliette] That you know someone…
[Dan] Has six kids, so…
[Aliette] Who’s had that [garbled experience].
[Dan] So, I can talk to some extent about this.
[Mary] I have no children. So all of…
[Aliette] But you do have nieces and nephews.
[Mary] I do have nieces and nephews, and I was there for the birth of my niece. So I’m a great example of someone who had to research heavily in order to write about pregnancy. Then there’s Howard.
[Howard] I…
[Howard] I’ve never been pregnant. But I’ve been present for the birth of…
[Dan] For the emergence…
[Howard] All four of my kids.
[Dan] Of your spawn.
[Howard] The one thing that I learned is that the experiences that Sandra and I had with previous pregnancy do not necessarily dictate the experiences we’re going to have this time. Not always the same thing.
[Mary] So, listeners, this is what you’re going to get a lot, which is that we’re going to have one expert in the room…
[Mary] And then three cabbage heads. So, Aliette, what is it that people get wrong about pregnancy and motherhood that particularly drives you crazy?
[Aliette] I love the idea that two pregnancies makes me an expert.
[Mary] Well, this is also another excellent point. That when we get someone on, they are one aspect of this experience.
[Dan] Yes. I think pregnancy and motherhood is a perfect example of how your experience is… There’s… No matter what we say, there’s got to be someone out there who disagrees with every single aspect of it. Because their personal experience was different.

[Aliette] I think one of the things that just struck me… I was on a panel on motherhood in… I think… I think it was preg… No, it was motherhood in science fiction. I think it was about four years back at Eastercon. I asked, “So, can anybody give me examples of mothers in science fiction?” They exist. But we have to look really hard. Like, Cordelia was the main one that people were thinking of. But a lot of them tended to actually either be dead or completely absent from the narration or there was some kind of like head of Zeus kind of thing going on where the main character didn’t actually have any parents.
[Gasps, chuckles]
[Aliette] It really struck me that people getting pregnant and people having children in particular wasn’t something that was very often depicted in fiction, even in… Well, especially in science fiction and fantasy, even in the background. I also remember reading Scott Lynch’s… It’s Red Seas under Red Skies, I think. He has the pirates… The pirate captain that has two toddlers in her cabin. The toddlers are wonderful. I was like… This was kind of a breath of fresh air moment, when I was like, “Hang on. The main reason I’m feeling…” I mean, it’s obviously a wonderful book, and it has… But the main reason I’m feeling so happy about this scene is because we see so few of them. As a mother, I’m like, I see mine all the time, and other people see mine all the time. I mean, it’s not like we sh… I mean, we tried shutting them in the rooms, but…
[Aliette] It absolutely does not work. They get out. Little scamps.
[Howard] Your reaction is a little bit like Diana’s reaction in the Wonder Woman movie when she’s on the streets of London and sees a baby. “Ah! A baby!”
[Mary] Oh, my God. Yeah. At least… Or my reaction, when I saw Wonder Woman, which is not… It was… It was like, “Okay. This is a competent superhero film. But I am having a disproportionate emotional reaction, because I have never seen myself represented in a fight scene where I am not the sidekick or I am not… I can imagine…”
[Aliette] That was very much… I mean, I had the same experience with Andre Norton, but like more in relation with like Asian identity and the fact that I had never seen that in fiction and I sort of imprinted… Like, who isn’t even Asian, she just happened to have black hair and came from outside and was mysterious… I was like, “She has to be Asian. She totally has to be Asian.”
[Aliette] “Don’t let anybody tell me otherwise, I don’t want to know.”

[Mary] So let’s pick some things. So, first of all, one of the things is that… One of the things that you have to deal with as a mother and pregnancy is just erasure. So this is an important thing. What does media get wrong when presenting motherhood? Like…
[Aliette] I feel like… Okay. Well, you have… Like, if pregnancies were noticed, it tends to be the very high stakes, immediately mortal ones. The one… Actually, my thinking of how pregnancies get represented in science fiction is actually Alien.
[Aliette] I apologize. Which is like every pregnancy is secretly about some kind of monster taking over your body and coming out. Sometimes you get…
[Howard] And as allegories go…
[Aliette] So, I guess a pretty good summary of like… Again, this is all my personal experience reading. I kind of feel like… Pregnancies are like very dangerous, potentially for some people. That… We still have maternal mortality, and that something that I don’t want to erase that, either. But also, for a lot of people, pregnancies are not that. They’re like a medical condition that gets managed, and then you have a child. That doesn’t mean that the birth is like pleasant.
[Aliette] I suppose, life experience, at that point, they’re probably not very pleasant. But it’s also something that happens, and is going to happen in your life, right? It doesn’t have to be… a sort of like… It either gets imbued with a sort of very monstrous kind of like going to give birth to a monster, or the opposite, which is, because we have the Messiah and the holy birth, there’s a sort of very… The mother gets put on a pedestal, where they can do no wrong. As a mother, I get this percept… I’m like, okay, sometimes we screw up, and sometimes we don’t. A lot of motherhood is wondering if we’re doing the right thing or not. Which I kind of feel everything gets sort of flattened in media a lot, when it is depicted.

[Dan] I have a question I’m very excited to ask you, but we need to pause for our book of the week first. So… Tell us, Aliette.
[Aliette] I have been told, apparently, that I can’t get out of presenting my own books here.
[Dan] Nope. You’re not excused.
[Aliette] So, my most recent series is Dominion of the Fallen, which is comprised of two books, House of Shattered Wings and House of Binding Thorns. They’re published by Ace in the US, and Gollanz in the UK and most of the rest of the world. They’re set in a sort of… In an alternate 19th-century Paris where a magical war between different magical factions basically devastated the city, and a couple of decades on, people are still trying to survive in the streets, while these factions are essentially in the Cold War state. They’re like, “We don’t really want to blow up the city again. However, do you really think that we’re going to pause the whole power struggle thing? I’ve got something to sell you.” So they’re kind of like very Gothic, very flowery books. I drew on a lot of 19th-century French classics that I love like Count of Montecristo for that. I also drew on manga and anime like Fullmetal Alchemist and Black Butler and a lot of like over-the-top 19th-century things that I really dig.
[Mary] They are fantastic books. I’m just going to give her a break from having to pitch herself, and say I blurbed the first book. I have the second book cute up and in eagerly waiting for time to read it.
[Dan] Which is always in short supply.
[Mary] Always in short supply.
[Dan] Tell us again the titles of those two.
[Aliette] The House of Shattered Wings and The House of Binding Thorns.

[Dan] Awesome. Cool. Okay. So, here’s my question. As you’re talking about pregnancy, and you even just now said something about pregnancy and then kind of rolled your eyes, “Oh, it’s this onerous thing.” I know, like I said, my wife has had six kids, there are aspects of pregnancy that she hates and that she dreads every time. There’s also aspects of it that she genuinely love. What do you love about pregnancy?
[Aliette] I really… I actually really love when the baby moves inside of you. I like… You can feel like their little… Like the [garbled]… For me, at least, like [garbled] there’s little bubbles, like I had fish inside me, so there was this sort of thing happening with like mouth opening. Then it sort of progresses as they get bigger and bigger. I remember when I was pregnant the first time, my husband was like… I can’t remember why, but he put his hand on my belly, and like, the baby kicked his hand…
[Aliette] He was like, “Oooh. Oh!”
[Aliette] That was the best thing.
[Dan] Yeah. One of the things that my wife says, as an example, is that she can tell… And again, this is one woman’s experience… She can tell personality even before they’re born. She has a sense. Is that something that you…?
[Aliette] No, no, I didn’t get that. Right after they’re born, though, like, for the first few days, it was like there definitely not the same kind of baby, personality-wise. Like, I could see… But no, I don’t know, because I’ve only had two, so I really… But I mean, there’s always… Because every pregnancy’s different. How much of that is down to like the mechanics of the pregnancy, and how much of the differences down to babies being different?
[Dan] Yeah. But, like, even like you said, those first few days, you can tell that this is not the same kid as my first kid. Getting to know them, and getting to meet this new person, even in the first day of their life, is really amazing.
[Aliette] The other thing that was really amazing is like when my first was born, like, he was all blue and limp, like he couldn’t take his first breath. So they handed me this… Like thing. I was like… She gets up there, and I presume that she helped him draw the air in. All of a sudden, I was like, “Wah! This is a baby.” Like, the air flows and then you can see, like, it became… It was like inflating a balloon, really. Like, this is making it sound not as awesome as it really was…
[Aliette] But it really was fabulous, in the sense that I could really see, like, this is him coming to life. Really? Like, taking his first breath.
[Mary] So, this makes me then also wonder, because that is a detail that would never occur to me to put into a novel. One of the details that I put in that a friend told me about that I would never have thought of putting in, was… She said that after her son was born, the first time she stood up, because your organs have all been pushed out of the way. The first time she stood up, she felt them all shift back into place.
[Aliette] [ouch]
[Mary] I was like, “That is so gross and so really cool.”

[Mary] So are there other little things that you can think of that make you, like, when you see it sometimes, you’re like, “Ah. That person. That person has personal experience of pregnancy?” Or they did their research.
[Aliette] I… I mean, I… Sorry.
[Howard] I was going to say, I’ve got a pretty good one from our second child.
[Mary] I’m sorry, Howard. Are you talking over the resident expert?
[Howard] I’m about to, but you’ll see why.
[Aliette] Oh, snap.
[Howard] This is so hilarious. The nurse came in…
[Dan] So he’s being rude, but it’s worth it.
[Howard] And asked. The nurse came in, and asked everybody to leave, because she needed to do a thing. My brother Randy was in there and said, “What’s this?” She said this is the part where she pushes on Sandra’s tummy and blurt… All the extra stuff comes out. Randy laughs. The nurse looks at him. Randy’s like, “Oh, my God. That’s a real thing.” And fled the room.
[Howard] I mean, the first time I’d say, that that was my first impression. I had no idea. Like, the organs shifting and… Wow.
[Aliette] In the hospital, they told us that for C-sections and stuff, they didn’t want the fathers inside the room, because they’d had to pick up too many of them from the floor.
[Aliette] They were like, “You can insist. We highly would like you to consider not, because you’re just too squeamish.” But I think a lot of details, like, for instance, I was watching, we were watching Breaking Bad very shortly after I was delivered. It’s the kind of thing that they did not actually get right, because it’s very hard to get right, is she got up from the sofa. I was like, “This is not a pregnant woman getting up from the sofa.” Because it is sort of like your entire sense of balance has shifted because… Actually, what she had was just a fat belly, right? In reality, you have the weight of the baby. That’s here, and they’re kicking, so you’re sort of doing this sort of like very cautious, “Okay. Let’s just pull up very cautiously, and be very careful that I don’t tip over.” Then you do this sort of waddle, of like… Especially if it’s very advanced in the pregnancy. Where I felt, it’s like… Well, there was the head pushing all the time. So I was like, “Okay. Very carefully now,” or something. Or one of the other things was that… All the little problems that you can have during pregnancies are like… A lot of times, like the pregnancy seems either very smooth or catastrophic, but there’s a lot of little problems that you can have. I mean, I had cramps because I wasn’t getting enough vitamins, so I had to eat lots of offal. All this stuff makes me feel okay, this is someone who’s either like he’s either had a good experience or he’s faking it really well. All of this makes me really happy when I see it, because okay, this feels real.

[Dan] I love seeing in a movie or a TV show, a labor that takes more than five minutes. You know?
[Mary] Although, one of my cousins had a one hour, from water breaking to baby in arms…
[Dan] We… Dawn and I have done that as well. But we’ve also done the 36 hour thing.
[Aliette] Especially, when it’s your first, generally speaking.
[Dan] Yes.
[Aliette] I remember…
[Howard] Being sent home from the hospital, because you’re not dilated far enough. “Oh, come back in a few hours.” “But she’s having contractions. Listen to that noise she’s making.” “Yes, yes. Honey, they all make that noise. Come back in a couple of hours.”
[Aliette] Yeah. Generally, they just start screaming, they go to hospital, and it’s all fine. In reality, they’re like, “You’ll have to wait for quite a while.” I wrote a birth scene in The House of Binding Thorns. It took hours, basically, because it was a first birth, so it was… And there were complications. The baby wouldn’t come down. Okay. Then I needed to bring in a complication. There was 19th-century levels of medicine and technology. So I was like, let’s get a research book. I was like, actually, it’s really hard to find a complication that would not end with the death of the mother, the death of the child, or the death of both. Because one of the things that I had established in the series was there was no healing magic. So I couldn’t just have someone waltz in and say, “We’ll heal everyone.” I was like, I would really like to have two living people at the end of this scene.
[Mary] Yeah, the 19th-century… I also, with the Regen… The Glamorous Histories. So I was reading 18th-century medical textbooks. Those… About pregnancy. Those are terrifying. Like, if I were not going to have a child already, like, if we had not already made that choice, wow. No. No. Not… uh-uh.
[Aliette] Yeah. I’ve read lots of papers… I think it was a… What was it? Oh, postpartum hemorrhage. So I [unclear ended up reading?] a couple of medical texts with like, well, what technology would they have? Oh, basically crossing fingers.
[Mary] The one I loved was packing the wound with moss.
[Aliette] Oh, that’s gross.
[Dan] Okay. That’s a wonderful note to end this episode on.
[Dan] So, thank you very much.
[Howard] Oh, wow.
[Dan] You’ve seen… This is a great example of what we’ll be doing all year. We’ll take one thing…
[Howard] Packing the wound with moss.
[Dan] Packing the wound with moss.
[Aliette] This is going to be the tagline for the entire rest of the…

[Dan] And, spoiler warning. Time for your homework. No? So…
[Dan] Who has homework for us?
[Howard] I… I’ve got this. In anticipation of the year to come, what I’d like you to do is sit down with a piece of paper and identify… Make a list of the subject matter experts in your life. Maybe this person is an auto mechanic, maybe they are a rocket scientist, maybe they are a schoolteacher, maybe they are a physician, I don’t know what they do, but they have expertise in a thing. As you are making this list, don’t make it by topic. Make the list by thinking of a person you know, and then asking yourself, “What is it that they are an expert in?” Make the list as long as you can. Then, during the course of this year, keep that list handy. During the course of this year, check off those folks as you’ve taken the opportunity to go talk to them about the thing about which they are a subject matter expert. This is not going to make you an expert. But, over the course of the year, it’s going to open your mind to all of the things that you don’t know that you may want to.
[Dan] I think that’s fantastic. I want to encourage you, as you’re making that list, don’t just think about professions, don’t just think about those kind of experiences, look at people from different backgrounds, people with different gender identities, people from different cultures. There’s a very broad spectrum of stuff about which we can learn this year. So… Fantastic. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go… Interview all your friends.