When comedy writer Monica Heisey got divorced in her late 20s, she struggled to find books or advice that covered both the isolation of getting divorced as your entire friend group gets engaged, as well as the absurd humour in being a young divorcée. So she decided to write her own. She talks to Capsule about her debut novel Really Good, Actually, why our internet search history is the truest insight into our soul and why so many of us get really into ***the moon*** when we’re going through heartbreak.
There is no faster short-cut to someone’s true, authentic self than their Google Search history from any particular month. It’s one of the many hilarious, character revealing tools employed by Canadian author Monica Heisey, in her very funny, very real debut novel, Really Good, Actually.
“I not only felt like a big failure but also, the only failure.”
Best known for her screen-writing work on beloved shows like Schitt’s Creek, Monica’s novel follows a year in the life of Maggie, a slightly madcap academic going through the entirely relatable highs and lows that accompany heartbreak. While the book is fiction, the heart of the novel mirrors Monica’s own life in one big way: both Monica and Maggie got divorced in their late 20s.
“I did a very smart thing by getting divorced just as people in my age cohort were starting to get engaged, so I not only felt like a big failure but also, the only failure,” Monica laughs. “I really wanted to read or watch something about the alienating experience of being a young person going through something like this, and I couldn’t really find anything.”
“The stuff that I could find about divorce was not only about people many decades older – and many financial brackets higher – than me, but also those books tended to be very sad, focusing on the devastating side of heartbreak,” she says. “Which is very real! But there’s also something absurd and I think slightly funny about it.”
“Even at the lowest point in my divorce, I could still tell there was something funny about it.”
“Even at the lowest point in my divorce, I could still tell there was something funny about it. I’m a comedy writer, so it’s my job to find what’s funny in any given situation. And I realised there wasn’t anything out there that treated heartbreak with a light hand, or spoke to the strangeness of the thing I was going through.”
She waited three years between her own divorce and writing the book – “I didn’t want writing to be my therapy, I wanted going to therapy to be my therapy” – but some of the ways Monica shows us just how chaotic it is inside Maggie’s mind are the aforementioned Google searches, like this trajectory-of-a-spiral that occurs a few months after her divorce:
– feminist dating apps
– is B12 important?
– dating apps no couples
– tracy Anderson arms video free
– good memes
– global extinction likelihood
– does recycling help
– nicole kidman leaving divorce lawyer’s office
There are also short chapters dedicated to post break-up fantasies which are uncomfortably relatable – one begins with ‘I am at a karaoke bar, and I look amazing’ – lists of the unanswered texts she sends her ex-husband, the terrible love advice she receives on New Year’s Eve from drunk strangers and more. Creating these short form pieces, Monica says, was part of her initial character study in finding out where her and Maggie both overlapped in their heartbreak and then diverged.
“There’s so much objective data in our internet use – our Google searches are these incredibly personal windows into our mental state, our email draft folder is the same thing,” she says.
If you’ve ever gone through a break-up, you’ll no doubt find your own heartbreak response represented somewhere in Really Good, Actually. For myself, I tell Monica, it was the sudden obsession that Maggie develops with the moon.
“When times are tough, you’ve got to get into the moon,” she laughs. “I don’t know what it is – but I think for women in particular, there’s just something about knowing about the moon that feels very comforting.”
One of the strongest themes of Really Good, Actually is that coming out of a heartbreak is very much a solo journey – which comes as a marked surprise after a lifetime of romantic comedies where the third act of a break-up is being fixed by a new love. This was a pattern that Monica was very keen to break away from, she says.
‘It was important to me that this book was really about being alone.”
“So many breakup stories end up being relationship stories, still – either because they spend their entire plot hashing out what happened in the relationship that didn’t work out, or asking the question: could that relationship have worked out in a different way, or they introduce some kind of saviour person,” she says.
“It was important to me that this book was really about being alone – it’s not about a woman’s love life, it’s about whether or not she can love herself and accept that as a deep need that she has (even if she finds it really corny).”
It’s one of the central challenges of any woman’s life but it’s particularly loaded in that convoluted years of your 20s and 30s. When asked why she thinks this time is such a rich tapestry when it comes to coming-of-age stories, Monica immediately starts laughing.
“I think astrologically…” she laughs. “If you want to think that way, there’s the Saturn return… I’m not sure how much of astrology is real but I do love to talk about it. So maybe it’s Saturn. But I also think that your late 20s is a really interesting social puberty, whereas in your early 20s you thought you were an adult but by your late 20s, you realise you’re not quite an adult, again. So, then there’s this frantic rush to sort your shit out before you turn 30; this big, intense milestone that we’ve built up so much, and that mad dash is really interesting, creatively, to me. The difference between how grown up you thought you were, what you thought a grown-up was, and then how grown up you actually are, and what being a grown-up actually is.”
Monica Heisey Shares Her Heartbreak Tool Box
A quick guide to the heartbreak pop culture she loves the most
You’ve Got Mail:
“I really love the break-up scene in You’ve Got Mail. Meg Ryan and Greg Kinnear have this almost fantasy level mutual break-up. That movie is great because it shows Meg Ryan getting so disappointed by life but still staying open. Maybe… too open? I mean [Tom Hanks] shuts down her mum’s store. That would be a bigger issue for me… that one was kind of a tough re-watch from a 2023 perspective, but it’s worth it.”
“Louise Glück let us use her gorgeous poem in the book, from her book Meadowlands, which is about divorce. I would say: lean into poems. Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Bishop, Sharon Olds, Anne Carson. Don’t be afraid of poetry.
“Don’t be afraid of anything that makes you feel like having feelings. Ladybird was a really good one for me, as well. Things that allow you to feel feelings and remind you that that’s the main part of being alive.”
Really Good, Actually By Monica Heisey from Harper Collins NZ is available now