Monica Heisey is ready to publish the anti-romantic comedy. The Canadian writer and comedian, who previously worked on Schitt's Creek, has created a tender yet sharp novel that tells the heartbreaking and hilarious tales of a young woman going through a divorce. Really Good, Actually is based on Heisey's real life, but it's not a memoir. She spoke with EW about why she felt compelled to tell this story about a very real situation in a fictional way.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: After all your success in television, why did you decide to write a novel?
MONICA HEISEY: I've always wanted to write a novel and had been working away for a year or so at a draft for another project about a woman called Kathleen, just scenes from different significant moments in her life. I kept writing interactions between her and her husband and thinking, this is so doomed, they're going to have to get a divorce. I couldn't bring myself to do that to Kathleen, so that novel got shelved, but I stayed interested in the theme, and then, very conveniently, my own personal life completely exploded.
How was the writing process different?
My favorite thing about writing for television is how collaborative it is. Especially with comedy — it's just such a good system to get a bunch of funny people together in a room for a few months. It makes creating something a pleasure. With the novel it was just me, alone, at my desk in the pandemic. I'm going to be honest: It was less fun. Certainly, it was much less fun at the beginning. In the end, I really enjoyed having more responsibility and freedom, creatively, even if there was no one there to bail me out on an off day.
What was the genesis of the novel?
I went through a divorce at a young age myself, and it was quite isolating — most of my peer group wasn't even married yet, so I didn't have anyone around me who could relate to what I was going through, and I became desperate to read or watch something about the experience. While there's no paucity of divorce art in the world, I couldn't find anything that summed up how specifically ridiculous going through it all at 28 in the late 2010s felt. I also wanted something that didn't take the whole thing too seriously — a lot of heartbreak art is quite heavy, when it really is one of life's funnier circumstances. I also knew that I didn't want to write a memoir — partly because every divorce is two stories, and it didn't feel fair to commit only mine to print, and mostly because I didn't think I could be funny about my real-life situation. So I invented Maggie and Jon, and tore up their life plans instead.
How would you describe the book?
It's a novel about someone having a very unexpected, big, adult thing happen, and realizing too late that she has no coping skills whatsoever. It's told partially in Google search histories and email correspondence and bits of well-meaning advice, and mostly in long monologues from the mind of a woman unsure of how she got [to] where she is, and extremely unsure [of] where she's going. There's also quite a lot in there about how difficult it is to buy trousers.
Give your best Hollywood pitch for the book.
Well-meaning woman freaks out in an extended way.
Read on for an exclusive excerpt from Really Good, Actually:
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In August the landlord started emailing. Someone in the building had told her Jon moved out, and she wanted to know if I would be changing the lease, for my own security, and also because the lease change fee was $70. I wondered if she was nervous about my ability to make rent. Our initial application had made us list our separate salaries in addition to our joint income total; maybe she had correctly intuited that Jon had shouldered more of our monthly living expenses, in accordance with how much more he earned. Now, her income was threatened by the presence of the weak link in one of her mid-tier one bedrooms.
I logged into my bank account: I had $200 and a credit card statement that was mostly burgers. Instead of emailing her back, I went online to homewares shops and clothing stores and little accessory boutiques I'd seen on Instagram, filling cart after cart, drinking wine and imagining the kind of life I'd lead if only I owned these items.
Sometimes I went practical, sometimes whimsical, sometimes extravagant. I'd conjure an important event—the Oscars, a second wedding—and craft the perfect outfit or bundle of accessories to stand out in a way that ensured I fit in more than everyone else. I'd decide an Italian villa was in my future and design a bedroom for it in the sale section of Urban Outfitters home, ducking past the 'vintage' items that threw back to my own, not-that-distant childhood in search of the perfect duvet to nap under while my focaccia rose in the other room. It was nice to imagine that owning the right nightgown could help, even if it would actually just put me in very stylish credit card debt. I hit 'purchase' about 20% of the time, but still managed to rack up an impressive number of orders.
For instance: I bought a SAD lamp. I bought a posture correcting harness. I bought a $113 candle, later returned. I bought new, humongous underwear. I bought a robe. I bought a set of watercolor paints, sat down with my pathetic little cup of water before realizing I hadn't bought a brush. I bought a big, aggressive vibrator, then a less ambitious one. I bought dinner. I bought a $90 vial of acid to put on my face. I bought a sleep app and another meditation app. I bought plants. I bought a yoga mat, dumbbells, resistance bands. I bought an experimental nail polish. I bought Korean pimple patches in the shape of hearts. I bought a hair mask and a face mask and a hand mask. I bought little plastic bags to put on my feet and waited until the skin sloughed off. I hoped it would all be in one long, large chunk, like a snake, but instead it was like walking around on two open shakers of processed parmesan cheese.
I bought a consultation with a psychic who spent thirty minutes drawing me a picture of a man: is this person meaningful to you? It was not a good drawing; it felt impossible to say. I lied and said yes, he looked very meaningful. She said that was because he would be there when I died. I bought a beautiful, sculptural coffee maker that took forever to complete its one job. I bought coffee in takeout cups from the cafe down the street while I waited for my expensive kitchen object to make more. I preferred the coffee from the café.
I bought wine. I bought a lavender "sleep spray" for my pillows and my pulse points. I bought a bikini wax, which bled lightly, looked smooth for three hours the next day, then erupted into an angry rash packed with future ingrown hairs. I bought a mineral sunscreen that didn't work. I bought some loose pants I saw on Instagram. I bought the shirt to go with them. I bought extra storage in the Cloud. I bought a chipped cocktail shaker from Value Village, and then a less-chipped one I found when I went back the next week.
I bought an expensive dress online, realized the $350 I'd agreed to pay was a first installment, that the store expected to receive three more, sent a panicked email, and got my money back. I bought a sleep tea and a laxative tea and a hormone-balancing tea. I bought a hundred books on being alone, cooking alone, inhabiting your body alone, and on exercise. I bought scarves for a future winter and hats for a dwindling summer and a set of cocktail glasses for a glamorous anniversary party I would never have.
When my credit card bill came, I returned almost everything, then canceled the card and started looking, in earnest, for a new place to live. Everywhere was too expensive and unpleasant to look at or think about. I made a few calls, responded to a few Craigslist ads and Facebook posts. There was something wrong with everyone I spoke to—too cheerful, curt, young, old, too close to my own age and situation, too different from it—and every place I looked at—cramped, molding, too many roommates, not close enough to the subway, "looked like the kind of place where a neighbour has drums."
Ever ready for a project, Lauren forwarded me links with thoughtful notations ("near me!" "has cat!" "owner sounds hot???") but I was uncompelled. I had envisioned some sunny, minimalist loft or verdant, divorcée-ready one-bedroom, but it was all crumbling 1960s houses with cement front yards and four "happy, sociable graphic designers" living in three bedrooms and a den.
Lauren forced me to contact a few of these, but I found it impossible to explain who I was or what I was looking for to the friendly Christophers and Brianas and Evanys who emailed back asking about my "vibe" and hygiene habits. What mattered to me? Was I messy, or had I just been messier than Jon, who was very tidy? Did I like to go out, or prefer to stay in? Would I call myself a "morning person"? Jon liked to sleep late, while I woke up every day at 8:15 no matter what I did.
Thinking outside of a comparative context was a challenge. I was less of a partier than Jon had been, but could I really call myself a homebody in my own right? In marriage I had traded in my essential traits for a series of comparisons: I was the Cranky One, the Bookish One, the One Who Cares If The Towels Are Damp. I wanted a place where I could figure out who I might be next, but every potential landlord or roommate wanted to know About Me, now.
I tried my best: I am an average-height, red-headed academic with anemia. I'm halfway to being a vegetarian, on weekends. I'm left-handed and shortsighted. Technically speaking I am an "average sized" woman—still, it is very difficult for me to buy pants, like it seems impossibly hard, and I don't totally understand who pants are for, if not average-sized people in general? I have no opinion on "the outdoors." My politics are leftist which so far has mostly meant that I sign a lot of petitions and donate small amounts of money to people who are working harder than me at solving the Problems or go to protests and attempt to stand in solidarity with people the Problems are happening to. I go to one festival a year despite not liking live music. I'm not sure I'm bisexual enough to "count." I'm an ENFJ, or an INFJ, or an ENFP . . . I have taken the test many times. I read a lot of books and own an amount of tote bags that makes that clear. I cycle. I'm the baby of my family (not by birth order, but you know). I'm jealous of people in more useful careers, even though useful careers seem like a lot more work. I think most intelligent people are a little bit mean, and all nice people are a little bit stupid. I wish I didn't think that. I'm working on not thinking that. I have bad posture and good blood pressure. I'm heartbroken.
I didn't get a lot of responses and didn't open the ones I did. I went to exactly one viewing, cold, for a house three doors down from me. An older man lived there—after his wife died last winter, he'd found himself with too much space, and converted a back annex of his home into a "junior one bedroom, with all the modern conveniences."
At $1000 per month, it was the only close-to-affordable place I'd seen where I could live alone in the neighbourhood of my choosing. In the pictures, it was incredibly clean, although a single, healthy pothos plant was doing a lot of work to give a raised platform bed over a hotplate and dorm fridge a homey atmosphere. It wasn't bad, exactly—by the standards of Toronto rental listings it was a real find—but there was no denying that it looked like the second-nicest room in a very humane Scandinavian prison.
When I got there, I realized the older man expected us to share a bathroom.
"I'm very respectful," he said with a laugh, "but if you come in without knocking, you're responsible for anything you see!"
I told the group chat this experience had put me off house hunting, that it might make sense to wait things out a little bit. Maybe I could AirBnB my place on weekends, staying on friends' couches while a wealthy couple I didn't know fought or fucked in my bedroom. Maybe I could get another job. Maybe my parents would help me out. Mostly, I could not imagine leaving, not yet. We'd properly decorated the living room this year, had recently risked our deposit to put three nails in a wall. Two of these were now bare, sticking out by a window like metal indictments. I had made a promise to this place. Maybe I couldn't keep all my promises, but I would try to keep this one.
I logged back into my bank account and gave my landlord seventy of my remaining dollars. She wrote back confirming receipt of payment, adding:Sorry to hear you're going through a tough time. It's always darkest before the dawn. :) If you meet someone new and want to add another person to the lease, a new $70 charge will apply.
Excerpted from Really Good, Actually by Monica Heisey. Copyright © 2023 by Monica Heisey. Reprinted courtesy of William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.