Zibby interviews comedian, award-winning screenwriter, and debut author Monica Heisey about Really Good, Actually, a hilarious, big-hearted, and astutely observed novel about a young divorcee’s search for joy (and it’s this week’s GMA Buzz Pick and just became an international bestseller!). Monica describes her protagonist Maggie, whose experiences are based on her own. She also talks about her exciting career in comedy, her life in London, her experiences screenwriting on the Schitt’s Creek team, and even what her next novel is about.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Monica. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Really Good, Actually.

Monica Heisey: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Is everybody making the same joke, that it’s really good?

Monica: Almost every headline.

Zibby: I feel so bad. I know. I was like, oh, my gosh, I’m making the same joke that everyone’s going to make, but I can’t not make it.

Monica: Honestly, I set you up for that.

Zibby: You did, right?

Monica: That’s on me, ultimately.

Zibby: Thank you for taking responsibility. I appreciate that. Tell listeners about Really Good, Actually. Tell me how it became a book, how you thought of the whole thing, how it reflects your own life, and all of that.

Monica: Really Good, Actually is a novel about a young woman named Maggie who’s twenty-eight years old and is finding herself unexpectedly in the midst of a divorce after her very recent marriage. It’s set during the first year of her life as a single person and her first year as a single adult ever. It was inspired by, I went through a divorce at a young age myself. Even in the earliest days of it when it was still pretty miserable pretty regularly, I sort of could tell there was something funny about it and that I might want to write — I’m a comedy writer, mostly for television. I’m used to taking things that have happened in my life or friends’ lives or just that I’ve seen around and turning them into comedy. I thought, even though this is a quite miserable experience, there’s definitely something funny in it. The novel’s my attempt to turn something a little bit grim into something funny.

Zibby: It was so funny. I told Paul — Paul is here in the background. I was like, “I don’t want to finish.” It’s so funny. I’ve laughed out. It’s amazing. The scene with — hold on, I dogeared a couple parts that I wanted to read. Well, not all of these are as funny, I guess.

Monica: They probably hit on a beautiful, emotional truth instead.

Zibby: I’m totally kidding. “When we were married, Jon rarely stayed out late. On the few occasions he did, I would enjoy my evening until about two, then lie awake staring at the ceiling thinking about all the things that could go wrong. What if the power went out and I needed to know how to interact with that big box in the basement? Our back door was rickety and unreliable. No matter how carefully I closed the bolts, checked and double-checked that I’d done it, fear would keep me awake. I’d get up to redo it ten times in the night in case someone was about to break in and kill me. I didn’t worry about that anymore. Maybe someone will break in and kill me, I’d think. Perfect.” This is so funny, all the songs you’re singing about. “All the songs I’m singing about are heartbreak, and the raw emotion of my recent experience informs each number. People are so moved. Some of them are weeping. Much of the audience is enthralled strangers, all of whom find me mysterious and alluring. The friends I came with are dumbstruck. No one can believe that I’ve been hiding this voice, that I’ve been so humble about it. ‘We thought all her grief would be for nothing,’ one whispers to another, ‘but look what she’s done with it. She’s like Nora Ephron if Nora Ephron had the voice of Adele.'”

Monica: One of Maggie’s many deluded fantasies that pepper the book is this idea that people want to watch you doing karaoke, a fantasy I think all of us have indulged a couple times.

Zibby: The part about the hamburgers when the deliveryman is outside — not that it’s a plot giver-away-er. It’s just so funny when she’s ordering in Paperless Post or whatever it is. The deliveryman is accidentally calling her ex every time in the middle of the night.

Monica: A friend of mine found out a couple years ago that for two full years her ex-boyfriend was getting an email every single time she ordered rotisserie chicken from this Canadian rotisserie chicken chain. She was like, “It’s not that embarrassing, but I just felt so exposed.” That’s something that Maggie feels throughout the book, is just very exposed.

Zibby: The way you wrote it is so funny. Those were emails to customer service. You could’ve said that in so many ways. The mix of forms and the way you handle the material and present it, some is Maggie and her friends just hanging out. Others were these funny letters or whatever. Tell me about how you structured the story and all the different characters and the choice of different form elements like that.

Monica: When I sat down to write the novel, because I knew it was going to be so intensely set inside one character’s head and because she was experiencing things that were inspired by my own emotions but that I wanted to be really fictional events, I thought, I really need to get to know this person and the ways where we overlap and the ways where we really diverge. I wanted to do a lot of character exercises to get to know Maggie. There are all of these short-form pieces scattered throughout the book, Google search histories and personal fantasies and emails and dating app conversations. All of those were my first attempts at getting to know this character and building up her voice and my sense of her worldview. Even the list that opens the novel, which is a list of reasons that Maggie and her husband Jon broke up, that was almost the first thing I wrote in the book to try and get my head around who this person was, what her relationship meant to her, and the ways that it was going to go very wrong for her. The short-form pieces were something so that I wasn’t starting with a blank page, so that I felt on solid footing that I understood who this person was. I’m a big outline girl, so then I did a big outline of the plot as it would transpire after I had those short-form pieces and a character grounding.

Zibby: Wow. Go back to how you got your start even in TV writing and writing in general. Where are you from? Give me some context here. How did you show up here today?

Monica: Who the hell are you? I am a writer. I started in Toronto, where I’m from. I’ve always written and also always been involved in comedy performance as well. At university, even was part of the school newspaper and in an improv troupe and stuff. Those have been passions of mine for a long time. I wrote a book in 2015 that was based on a joke advice column I had for a website called She Does the City in Toronto, a lovely local website. It was joke advice and personal essays but also had some of those little short-form humor pieces as well, which are where I kind of got my start writing, odd humor pieces for independent websites like The Hairpin, the best website ever, now defunct, and also The New Yorker Shouts & Murmurs and stuff. Then off the back of that book, I was promoting that book, and I met some amazing women at a comedy show where I was being interviewed. They were doing improv based on the interview answers. They were just setting up the first season of their sketch show called Baroness von Sketch Show, which is a great Canadian comedy show that ran for five, maybe six seasons. They asked if I had any samples of sketch comedy. I had just come back from doing a summer at the Edinburgh Fringe with some friends, so I did. That was my first TV job. Then the book also led me to Schitt’s Creek, which is my second TV job. I’m just the luckiest person in the world to have those be my first two jobs. Someone had given Dan a copy of my book. Again, they reached out and asked if I had a sample. I didn’t have a half-hour narrative sample, but I said that I did. I wrote one over the course of a frantic weekend and sent it off.

Zibby: Just looking for the file. I’m going to reformat it. This PDF converter is going to take about forty-eight hours.

Monica: I’m having computer trouble. I was really, really lucky and then really fell in love with writing comedy for TV and have been doing that for most of my career.

Zibby: Wait, go back to — you send the sample, finally. They obviously love it. Then did you go into a writers’ room? How long did you work on that? How many episodes?

Monica: I was on seasons three and four of the show as a writer, one small part of a big team. It was where I learned how to do any of it. It was such a good introduction because we had an amazing mix. We had some really old-school pros and then a couple people who were new, like me. Then Dan has always had such a clear vision for what he wanted the show to be. When you have a strong leader like that, I feel like it’s just a pleasure to help figure out how to enrich their original but very clear vision or build towards what they’re looking for. There were about eight of us. It’s such an intuitive and smart way to make comedy, to get a bunch of people together in a room who can support each other’s ideas or, equally, pick holes in them and be like, I’m not sure that this works, but what if it was like this? It was a real pleasure.

Zibby: What do you think it is about comedy? I think if you got eight novelists in a room together, it might not end up — why can that form be done communally so much better?

Monica: God, that’s a really good question. I think part of it must be the immediate response. It’s so easy to doubt yourself when you’re writing alone as to whether something’s funny. A laugh is an instinctual reaction that you kind of have no control over. If you can elicit laughs from a room full of people, then you know you’re on the right path. It feels like really helpful live and immediate feedback. Definitely, writing the novel was a really intense shift to be like, it’s just for me for now. Obviously, I was so lucky to find my editors. I have two amazing editors, one in the UK and one over here. We all worked on the book together. Before I found them, I had to write the entire thing by myself, which was so unexpectedly confronting because I only really had my own sense of humor to go off of. I’m used to having a room full of people that I can be like, is this anything? They can tell me if it is or isn’t. It was just me.

Zibby: It’s just how hard you were making yourself laugh.

Monica: Kind of, yeah, how crazy I looked in my office laughing by myself.

Zibby: Why even try a novel? Your TV career is taking off. Why go this route?

Monica: Because this story is so personal, I did want it to be something that I was at the helm of. Also, it’s a very interior story. It takes place a lot inside Maggie’s head and deals a lot with feelings of criticism and feelings of self-doubt. I thought it would be easiest to really get into the depths of how she was feeling by being able to just write it all out rather than find ways to show it. Although, now we’ve optioned it for TV, so I do have to find what those ways are. Also, I really wanted to try to challenge myself and do something different. It was a genuine challenge. It felt really difficult, but it was also really worthwhile. I feel like I learned a lot while doing it.

Zibby: I bet. Are you going to write another novel?

Monica: Yeah, I’m working on one right now.

Zibby: Did you already sell it? Was it a two-book situation?

Monica: Yeah.

Zibby: That’s always nice. What is that about?

Monica: So far, it’s about a group of friends in Toronto. They’re all in their late thirties. Don’t hold me to this because it could all change.

Zibby: And now one of them is a TV writer.

Monica: No. I want it to be even farther from my life and also, again, to try and challenge myself in a different way, tell multiple perspectives and people who are much farther from me than Maggie is. I’m in the outlining stage of that. I think the outline is going to be quite a — can I swear?

Zibby: Go for it. Why not?

Monica: I was going to say quite a bitch. Now I feel weirdly shy about it.

Zibby: Have you seen the musical Six?

Monica: No. It’s such a big deal in London, though.

Zibby: You should go see it. I don’t really like going to musicals. It’s so good. My kids are obsessed with it. One of the songs is like, “Bring out the bitches. Woof.” They sing that all the time. They’re like, “Now we can say the B-word because it’s in the song.”

Monica: This is history, Mom. We’re allowed.

Zibby: Exactly. That’s what that makes me think of. That’s a fine one to say. Totally sanctioned forever. Which of the character study exercises are you doing for your new characters? Give us some of the tools, all the aspiring writers out there, that, if you’re developing a character, it’s really helpful to do.

Monica: That’s such a good question. One thing I’ve been doing is — have you seen The L Word on Showtime?

Zibby: No.

Monica: They have a big hook-up chart of who’s hooked up with who and what everyone’s links are. I’ve made a couple charts, not related to who’s hooking up with who, but just different kinds of relationships and dynamics, so who’s jealous of who or who secretly has a crush on who. It’s very messy. It looks like the work of a serial killer. It’s really useful for me to visually plot all that stuff out. I took a painting class from my friend Laura Dawe in the early stage of writing this book that really opened up how I was thinking about writing it. I’m going to do the same thing for this new book. She shows how she paints these beautiful still lifes. She blocked in all the big colors first and then did shadows and then did highlights. Detail comes so much later. For so many stages of the creative process, it doesn’t look like the thing that you’re trying to make at all. You have to have the faith that these are important layers. That was really emancipating for me, to not have to have a draft that was ready to go, but to be like, I have the shapes in this draft. I have the highlights in this outline. I’ve been trying to think about it that way and not put too much pressure to get the detail right until much later.

Zibby: I feel like if I were going to write a writing guide, it would be like, pretty sentences come last. It’s so counterintuitive because you need the sentences to write it to begin with.

Monica: I know. It’s the same thing with writing for TV. I was really, as a young writer, like, I don’t understand why we have to spend all this time outlining. Now I’m like, oh, if your story isn’t airtight, then the whole thing falls apart, and all your funny lines have to go in the bin anyway. I feel like I’m very dedicated to having a strong outline that can hold.

Zibby: Interesting. When you’re not writing for TV or writing novels or talking to your friends about ordering chicken, what do you do when you’re not at work? What’s your life like?

Monica: I have almost no work-life balance. That is a good question that I should ask myself more. What do I do? I live in London. I love just walking around. One of the things I love about it is that it’s a really walkable city. All the neighborhoods are these little villages. Well, not all the neighborhoods, but a lot of the neighborhoods are these little villages where you can kind of get everything you need within a ten, fifteen-minute walk. There’s a nice park. I’m a big fan of walking to the little bookstore and then going and sitting. I’ve lived there a long time, but I still feel very romantic about the city. I just walk around and listen to music and read in cafés and get a bit main-character-y about it.

Zibby: You’ve just cast yourself in a role. You’re like, I’m going to just live out the life of the novelist in London. Thank you very much. Oh, my gosh, so funny. Why do you live in London, by the way?

Monica: I moved there in 2010 to study early modern literature, did an MA there. I figured it was never going to be an advanced degree that actually did anything for me professionally, so I thought I should make a real experience out of it and go to the place that — they have such amazing archives and stuff over there. You’re walking around the streets where the stuff you’re studying actually happened. For very nerdy reasons, I moved over there. Then I just really fell in love with the city. I went up to the Edinburgh Fringe not really knowing much about it. It’s this incredible, enormous, creative, cultural explosion. They have really engaged audiences for comedy. I just felt like I had really found a place where I could do the things that I wanted to do at the level that I wanted to do them and with a group of friends that really make me laugh. Pubs are amazing as well.

Zibby: Fish and chips, the whole thing. Wimbledon. That was what I did on my honeymoon. We went to Wimbledon.

Monica: Did you? Wow. Chic.

Zibby: It was pretty awesome, I have to say. My husband used to teach tennis.

Monica: Did you wear a little hat?

Zibby: I wore a very pretty dress. I felt very chic. That’s the last time I dressed up to watch a sporting event, one and only. What about movies? Do you have any interest in writing movies?

Monica: Yeah, I would love to write a movie. I’m a big romantic comedy fan. I love the classics. I feel like I watch When Harry Met Sally — my boyfriend calls When Harry Met Sally “the film” because I watch it so often. I’m just always in the mood for it, if I’m happy, if I’m sad.

Zibby: It is my favorite movie. Number one.

Monica: Me too. Number-one favorite movie of all time.

Zibby: Number-one favorite movie.

Monica: She just really nailed it.

Zibby: All of it.

Monica: The friend group. I’m obsessed with — this is my whole thing. If you can write a good dinner party, that’s the real test of a good writer, particularly in movies like Bridget Jones’s Diary dinner party where she makes a total crap dinner. Then all of her friends do a toast quoting Mark Darcy, and he’s there. Perfect.

Zibby: Smug marrieds. Any authors you’re obsessed with these days?

Monica: I’m always obsessed with Heidi Julavits. I read The Folded Clock every year. What am I reading more recently that has come out recently? I’m really excited to read The Survivalists, but I haven’t read it yet, by Kashana Cauley.

Zibby: I have it, if you want.

Monica: Do you? I did bring a tote bag. I am really obsessed with Sheila Heti. Her narrator, whose name is Sheila but isn’t her, in How Should a Person Be? says you have to know where the funny is. If you know where the funny is, then you know everything. I’m always looking for writers who know where the funny is, of which she is definitely one.

Zibby: I just interviewed her about her children’s book.

Monica: Did you? Oh, my gosh, I’d love to read a Sheila Heti —

Zibby: — It’s not at all funny.

Monica: No?

Zibby: It’s very dark. It’s about a dead bunny, but it’s a way to teach kids about loss and whatever. In a way, it’s not dark. It’s actually light at the end. It’s great. It’s beautiful, but it’s not humor. Let me just put it that way.

Monica: Fair enough. I guess there’s a time and a place.

Zibby: Not when you’re teaching kids about loss. Not the time to joke, necessarily. Number-one piece of advice for an aspiring author?

Monica: Probably, the thing I said about the shapes. Don’t be afraid to just start so that you don’t have a blank page in front of you. It’s very intimidating to me still. Working in TV and having to get drafts out on kind of tight turnaround, you don’t really have time to criticize yourself. It really is just about making sure you don’t have time to criticize yourself. Just getting something out there and then leaving it for a second. When you go back, it’s never as bad as you think it’s going to be.

Zibby: I like that advice. Stay so busy you don’t have time to criticize yourself. That’s awesome. I’ve maybe done that with my own life, perhaps. Last question. My older daughter, who’s almost sixteen, is obsessed with Schitt’s Creek. Is there anything you can tell her that she’ll be like, “Oh, my god, no way”?

Monica: I’m trying to think. What’s a little easter egg? This is probably well-known by now. Annie Murphy wrote the “A Little Bit Alexis” song herself and choreographed it herself, which is pretty amazing. Also, just that everyone is lovely. Everyone’s like, oh, my god, was it as fun as it seemed to work on it? Yeah.

Zibby: Awesome. More fun than a room full of eight novelists. Thank you so much for coming on, Monica. I’m really excited for your next book. Good luck. Congratulations.

Monica: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Pleasure.



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