A ‘Schitt’s Creek’ writer’s turn to fiction is ‘Really Good, Actually’
On the Shelf
Really Good, Actually
By Monica Heisey
Morrow: 384 pages, $28
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Or maybe that’s just me. “Oh, my God,” Heisey says with a laugh as I detail many of her screenwriting credits over a video call from her home in London. “A Canadian content supporter in America. What next?” She somewhat understates the fandom for Schitt’s Creek, which swept the comedy categories at the (American) Emmy Awards in 2020. And as showrunner of a forthcoming British show in the spirit of the breakthrough dramedy “Catastrophe,” she’s edging ever closer to becoming a Hollywood name.
When it comes to novels, though, “Really Good, Actually” is a first. Heisey’s fiction debut follows Maggie, a newly divorced 20-something Toronto resident who wants to move on with her life but has, shall we say, issues. Unsurprisingly, coming from a seasoned comedy writer, a lot of the action and commentary is very funny — think Bridget Jones meets “Broad City” — but this book isn’t quite a rom-com.
“I didn’t want it to be too simple or straightforward a story, and I definitely didn’t want people to only relate to Maggie, because I think real human beings are a lot messier than that,” says Heisey. And having been asked a lot about whether she’s the model for her main character, she’s eager to point out that Maggie is no more of a stand-in for the author than the TV roles she’s written.
“I know that we look very physically similar, and that’s important, because I wanted to write about body image and food-related issues,” Heisey says. “It made sense to write from my own experience and then move on to different directions emotionally.”
The poet, viral tweeter and author has a new novel, “Milk Fed,” imagining an explicit affair between a damaged Hollywood loner and a plus-size woman.
Still, there are a few more parallels. Heisey has abundant red hair and, perhaps more importantly, went through a divorce in her late 20s after marrying earlier than many of her peers. She might be speaking about — or even to — herself when she says, “Maggie kind of thinks that she’s made this big adult choice in getting married, but she hasn’t actually bothered to become an adult. She let being married make that leap for her, became overly focused on the externals.”
Maggie isn’t alone, of course, and that’s Heisey’s point: “Marriage starts so publicly that when it ends, there’s a sense of public failure, like all 100 people who were at the wedding got a news alert or something. I think I wanted to show someone who was feeling a lot of shame, which is pretty common after a relationship ends.”
Shame can be a powerful way for a person to distance herself from the reality of a situation. Maggie, who teaches Renaissance literature, has spent much more time chasing professional success than learning about her own needs. “There’s times when Maggie will say one thing and then, seven or eight pages later, say the opposite,” Heisey says. “But I think that’s part of the process of getting over something as major as your life not turning out the way you thought it would.”
Maggie wastes no time getting on the dating apps, which didn’t exist when she was in college, and she has no trouble getting attention from both men and women. But she doesn’t seem eager to find love again — with either sex. What keeps her stuck? When is the romance going to kick in? A reader — or interviewer — can’t help asking.
With a new memoir, “You’re Leaving When?,” the writer-actress contemplates illness, middle age and an empty nest, humorously.
“Maggie’s therapist sort of calls her out on this in the novel,” Heisey says. “But as a character she’s someone who’s running from self-knowledge, running especially from intimacy. And ultimately, it isn’t a story about a woman grappling with her sexuality, it’s about a woman grappling with her relationship to herself.”
This isn’t Heisey’s first book; she put her comic chops to use in the cheeky self-help essay collection “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better.” But creating a complex character away from the comfort of a TV writers room was, Heisey admits, a challenge. “I had a big outline that looked intimidatingly large 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 really well from the start.” So she began with small set pieces, such as lists of Maggie’s Google searches (which deteriorate the more she drinks).
“I write a lot of short-form humor pieces, so these short chapters felt very comfortable for me.” Some tools, of course, simply don’t translate. “Television writing is so collaborative,” Heisey says. “There was definitely a point about halfway through the novel where I realized no one else was coming. It’s just me! On some days that was really tough and on others really empowering.”
Heisey isn’t done with books; in fact, she’s expanding her repertoire, working next on “an ensemble book,” she says. “I thought it would be a nice challenge to write from the perspective of a friendship group.” She’s also just wrapped her first showrunner job in the U.K. “It’s a romantic comedy for Sky about a young woman who has had enough of meeting men on the apps and meets a man out in the wild, which is a very rare experience these days.” The two leads decide to embark on a three-week affair in which they don’t learn too much about each other.
2020 Emmy winner (seven times over) “Schitt’s Creek” went from cult obscurity to fan favorite. Like the series itself, that feel-good story is a solace right now.
“At the end of the affair, they’ve obviously fallen for each other pretty hard, but then she finds out he has a 6-year-old child from a previous relationship,” says Heisey. “So it’s about being a young and unlikely stepmother and figuring out where you fit in a relationship with a person who already has someone who matters the most to him.”
Having herself navigated some unsteady personal terrain, Heisey is making a career out of guiding characters through the kinds of crises we can laugh at and sympathize with all at once, while upending enough rom-com tropes to keep things interesting. All of which is to say that you’re going to get to know Monica Heisey a lot better, in one medium or another, and you’re likely to come out of the experience knowing yourself a little better too.
Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.
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