The novel Really Good, Actually begins with the end of a marriage and a list. “My marriage ended,” Maggie explains, “because I ate in bed. Or because he liked electronic music and difficult films about men in nature. Or because I did not.” Perhaps the real problem is that Maggie and Jon got “carried away” after going to nine weddings in a year and decided to have their own “big party where everyone told us we were geniuses for loving each other and gave us $3,000.” But whatever the reason, Maggie suddenly finds herself going through a divorce at age 29.
Monica Heisey’s buzzy fiction debut chronicles Maggie’s darkly funny and meticulously detailed breakdown set against the backdrop of our wellness-obsessed world. But it’s also an ode to friendship and a reminder to cherish the people who text back when you freak out in the middle of the night.
A Toronto-born writer and comedian, Monica has written for TV shows like Schitt’s Creek and Workin’ Moms. We chatted via Zoom on a recent Saturday evening, and she’s just as warm and funny as you’d expect. Here, she shares her favorite sunscreen, what she’s learned from Nora Ephron, and the best thing to do after a bad day…
What inspired you to write Really Good, Actually?
I went through a divorce at a young age myself, and I knew pretty instantly that I wanted to write about it. I realized that if I wanted to talk about my emotions in an honest way, the easiest way to do that would be to create a fictional vessel. I’ve read and watched a lot of depressing stories about divorce and heartbreak and they resonated with me. But I was also fascinated by how much of the experience was so heightened as to be comically ridiculous. Often things are funny in retrospect, but even in the moment, it was so intense that there was something funny about it right away.
You write for TV shows, and when I think about people writing TV, I imagine a huge conference table laden with snacks. But writing a novel is pretty solitary. What was it like moving between those two work modes?
When you’re writing TV with a group, people are always giving you feedback. Laughter is an automatic response, so you can pitch something and know, honestly and quickly, if your idea is worth pursuing. Whereas when you’re writing a novel, it’s really just you…in your room…alone.
Writing a novel started off being less fun — and a lot more anxiety-inducing — but then that flipped. When you’re at the creative stage for TV, where everything is possible and ideas are flowing easily within the group, that’s one thing. But when it comes to production, you have the limits of budget and schedule and actors and even how much daylight is left. It’s much harder. You could have had an amazing generative creative experience and then the practicalities swoop in and change it. But with a novel, you can do whatever you want. You get to decide what the weather is like. That freedom was empowering once I got over the total fear of it just being me on the page.
In a recent DAZED interview, you said, ‘My working theory is that if you can write a good dinner party you can write anything.’ I love that. You’ve talked about Nora Ephron being a huge inspiration. What have you learned from her work?
I’m obsessed with Nora Ephron’s eye for the contradictions in people. She was non-judgmental and saw contradiction as a natural part of being a person. If you’re trying to portray a character with any degree of fullness, I think it’s important to understand that nobody has a totally coherent and cohesive worldview. People say things they don’t mean; people take back things they do mean. I think every character should be a messy character, because every person is a messy person.
Do you have a favorite on-screen breakup?
The one in You’ve Got Mail, where Meg Ryan and Greg Kinnear realize that neither of them are into it anymore. You can see all the tension lift away, and suddenly they’re giggling and almost flirtatious. This ease comes back into the relationship right away because they’ve named the dynamic…even though the dynamic is ‘we can’t be together anymore.’
When you’re stressed or having a bad week, what have you found to be helpful?
I’m annoyed to say it, but, exercise. It really helps with mental health. I love a spin class in the dark. And seeing a good friend for dinner, when neither of you are on your phones, can be stress relieving. One thing I missed during the pandemic was going out with a friend and experiencing myself through their gaze. There’s so much warmth and loving care in being with a friend and feeling what they’re mirroring back. So, I’d say a nice, well-lit dinner with loved ones or a poorly lit spin class on your own.
I want to talk about the role of friendship in your book. Many friendships actually outlast romantic relationships; and yet friendships are seen as secondary. In your novel, it seems like a lot of the deep abiding love happens between friends.
I had been reading a lot of novels about unlikable or complicated women and it struck me that they were all friendless. I found it perplexing, because, realistically speaking, for every complicated female protagonist, there are probably four exhausted friends just out of frame. I wanted to bring those people into the center of the story. It’s a novel about someone going through a personal crisis, and I don’t think most people go through those crises alone. So, I wanted to celebrate the role of friendship groups. I also didn’t want them to seem like the friends in a traditional romcom whose only interests are the main character’s love life. These people have full, busy professional and romantic lives themselves and are taking time out of those lives to provide care and support. They don’t just exist to say, ‘He did what?!?’
When you were getting divorced, were there any things that friends did or said that stood out?
When I realized my marriage was really, really over, I told my friend Evany, and she was at my house within an hour with a bag of groceries. She was like, ‘We can talk about it or we can not talk about it, but I’m making you potatoes.’ She made this delicious dinner with smashed potatoes. It felt like everything in my life was falling apart, but here were these perfect and crispy potatoes.
Let’s talk hair. Can you tell me about your bangs?
I’d wanted bangs forever, but all the hairdressers I saw in my teens would not give me them. They were very insistent that bangs wouldn’t be flattering on my round face. When I was studying abroad, my friend Laurel had a short fringe and I told her that I loved it. She asked why I didn’t have bangs if I liked them so much. I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not sure they’d work on my face shape.’ She cut them for me that night. I was 20 and I’ve had them ever since. I cut them myself for a long time.
I cut my hair throughout the pandemic with kitchen scissors. I finally went last month to get a professional haircut and the difference was dramatic.
When I started getting my bangs cut professionally, the insanity of my own idea was instantly revealed to me. I was like, God, I’ve been so disrespectful about the skill and craft of hairdressing. I’m a fool and a moron!
How do you take care of your hair?
Around the time of my breakup, I started getting Instagram ads for Edo Salon in San Francisco — they do razor shags. I bookmarked a million of them and showed my own hairdresser. I’d always had wavy, difficult-to-style hair. But when I got a shag, I learned that I actually have curly hair. The shag has been a revelation because you can maintain a nice shape without much effort.
What’s your skincare routine?
As a ginger, I’m obsessed with sunscreen. I have a Hello Sunday Invisible Sun Stick in every bag. I also like that snail stuff. In the morning, after washing my face, I’ll put on COSRX Snail Mucin Repairing Essence.
How about at night?
I wash my face with Garnier SkinActive Micellar Water and then Clinique Take The Day Off Cleansing Balm. I also use A313 Retinol Pommade before bed.
Everyone I know who uses A313 is absolutely devoted.
It changed my life — I don’t get pimples anymore! I also notice a big difference in terms of glow. During the pandemic, I was curious about retinol but have sensitive skin. I read that this was a step up from the average retinol but not like prescription-grade retinol. I had been afraid of all of the purging and flaking that can happen with prescription retinol, but the A313 caused no problems for me whatsoever. Now I recommend it to everyone I know.
Do you wear makeup?
Being ginger, I feel like there’s an amount of daily investment required in order to have visible facial features. I do my eyebrows with Boy Brow. My #1 best product of all time is the Milk Makeup Highlighter Stick. It’s easy to apply and gives you a very natural radiance. I use Benetint on my lips and cheeks, and I swear by Charlotte Tilbury Pillow Talk Eyeliner, a light brown that you smudge into the lash line.
What about makeup for a special event?
I love an excuse to go crazy. I love a bold lip. I love a graphic liner. Teens on TikTok are doing amazing things, and I enjoy stealing their ideas. Violette makes my favorite liquid eyeshadow in a bunch of colors.
Any drugstore faves?
My friend Claire turned me on to redness eyedrops. All I’m ever trying to do on my face is combat redness. I get dry, red eyes, but a nice clear eye makes me feel awake and present and human.
The last thing I wanted to ask you about is for readers who are going through a breakup. What advice would you give?
My main advice is, don’t try to skip the part that sucks. It’s going to be tempting to try to move on. I mean, that’s basically what the character Maggie is doing for the entire novel; she’s trying to skip over the part where you feel awful. But you have to let it be bad and be gentle with yourself. And then — this part was hard for me — the second part is not losing sight of the fact that one day you will feel fine again. Let yourself feel awful and know that it’s gonna be fine. Hopefully, someone will come over and make you potatoes.
Thank you so much, and congratulations, Monica!
British book cover on the left and American book cover on the right. Which do you like better?
P.S. More women share their beauty uniforms, including celebrity chef Samin Nosrat and grief expert Nora McInerny.
(Opening photo by Harry Livingstone, second and fifth photo by Rachel Sherlock, the rest are courtesy of Monica Heisey.)
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