On the shelf
Really good, actually
By Monica Heise
Tomorrow: 384 pages, $28
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You may not think you know author Monica Heisey, but if you’ve seen the comedy series “Schitt’s Creek,” “Baroness von Sketch Show,” or “Workin’ Moms,” you know her writing well.
Or maybe it’s just me. “Oh, my God,” Heisey says with a laugh as I detail several of her screenwriting credits over a video call from her home in London. “An advocate for Canadian content in America. Then? Somehow it underestimates the fandom of Schitt’s Creek, which swept the comedy categories at the (American) Emmy Awards in 2020. And as showrunner of an upcoming British show in the spirit of the groundbreaking comedy-drama ‘Catastrophe’, he’s getting closer and closer to become a Hollywood name.
When it comes to romance, though, “Really Good, Actually” comes first. Heisey’s fictional debut follows Maggie, a newly divorced 20-year-old Toronto resident who wants to move on with her life but has, shall we say, problems. Unsurprisingly, coming from an experienced comedy writer, a lot of the action and commentary is very funny—she thinks Bridget Jones meets “Broad City”—but this book isn’t really a romantic comedy.
“I didn’t want it to be too simple or direct a story, and I definitely didn’t want people to just relate to Maggie, because I think real human beings are much messier than that,” Heisey says. And after being asked a lot about whether she’s the model for her lead character, she’s eager to point out that Maggie is no more of an author’s stunt double than the TV roles she’s written.
“I know we look very similar physically, and that’s important, because I wanted to write about body image and food-related issues,” says Heisey. “It made sense to write from my experience and then move in different directions emotionally.”
However, there are some other parallels. Heisey has abundant red hair and, perhaps most importantly, she went through a divorce in her late 20s after marrying before many of her peers. She might be talking about—or even to—herself when she says, “Maggie she thinks she made this big adult choice by getting married, but she really didn’t bother becoming an adult. She has let being married take that leap for her, she has focused too much on the external aspects of her.
Maggie isn’t alone, of course, and this is Heisey’s point: “The wedding begins so publicly that when it ends, there is a sense of public failure, as if all 100 people who were at the wedding were given a news alert or something like that. I think I wanted to show someone feeling a lot of shame, which is pretty common after a breakup.
Shame can be a powerful way for a person to distance themselves from the reality of a situation. Maggie, who teaches Renaissance literature, has spent far more time pursuing professional success than knowing her own needs. “There are moments where Maggie says one thing and then, seven or eight pages later, she says the opposite,” Heisey says. “But I think it’s part of the process of getting over something as important as your life that it hasn’t turned out the way you thought it would.”
Maggie wastes no time using dating apps, which didn’t exist when she was in college, and has no problem attracting the attention of men and women alike. But she doesn’t seem eager to find love again, with either gender. What’s keeping her stuck? When will the love story start? A reader – or interviewer – can’t help but ask.
“In the novel, Maggie’s therapist calls her on this,” Heisey says. “But as a character she’s someone who runs away from self-knowledge, especially from intimacy. And ultimately, it’s not a story about a woman grappling with her sexuality, it’s about a woman grappling with her relationship with herself.”
This isn’t Heisey’s first book; she puts her comedic chops to good use in the cheeky collection of self-help essays “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better.” But creating a complex character away from the comfort of a TV writer’s room was, Heisey admits, a challenge. “I had a large silhouette that looked intimidatingly big and long,” she says. “I thought, if I’m going to write in this woman’s voice for thousands of words, I should probably know her very well from the start.” So she started with small sets, like Maggie’s Google search listings (which deteriorate as she drinks).
“I write a lot of short-form humor pieces, so these short chapters felt very comfortable.” Some tools, of course, just don’t translate. “Television writing is so collaborative,” Heisey says. “There was definitely a point halfway through the novel where I realized that no one else was coming. It’s just me! Some days it was really tough and some really powerful.
Heisey isn’t done with the books; in fact, she is expanding her repertoire, then working on “an ensemble book,” she says. “I thought it would be quite a challenge to write from the point of view of a group of friends.” She also just wrapped up her first job as UK showrunner “It’s a romantic comedy for Sky about a young woman who has had enough of meeting men on apps and meets a man on the loose, which is a very rare experience of these times. The two protagonists decide to embark on a three-week relationship in which they don’t learn much about each other.
“By the end of the relationship, they obviously fell in love with each other, but then she finds out he has a 6-year-old from a previous relationship,” Heisey says. “So it’s about being a young and unlikely stepmother and figuring out where you stand in a relationship with someone who already has someone who matters more to them.”
Having navigated shaky personal ground herself, Heisey is making a career of guiding characters through the kinds of crises we can laugh at and sympathize with all at once, flipping enough rom-com tropes to keep things interesting. All of which is to say that you’ll get to know Monica Heisey a lot better, in one medium or another, and you’ll likely walk away from the experience knowing yourself even a little better.
Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.