There’s nothing funny about divorce, unless you’re reading Canadian comedian and writer Monica Heisey’s debut novel, Really Good, Actually (Morrow, Jan. 2023). Heisey captures all the trauma and humor of the situation through the story of her 29-year-old protagonist, Maggie, whose marriage, the culmination of a 10-year relationship, ends after 608 days (yes, she’s counting).
“But we weren’t unhappy,” Heisey writes, “just unsatisfied... until we were so, so unhappy, and we couldn’t laugh, and we couldn’t have sex, and we couldn’t order Thai food without looking at the other person... and not hating them, exactly, but wondering if they died without warning—of natural causes or in some kind of horrible accident, not that that would be good, of course, it would be a tragedy... but if it did happen—if maybe life would be easier.”
Heisey herself was divorced at 28 (she’s 34 now) and tells me, “I wanted to read something about divorce and heartbreak that I could relate to. Most of what I read was about older women with houses and children. I was in a different life space.” As she writes: “In the movies you are Diane Lane, or Keaton, or possibly Kruger, a beautiful middle-aged Diane who is her own boss and knows about the good kind of white wine.... Certainly you are not... actively planning a birthday party with the dress code ‘Jimmy Buffet sluts.’ ”
Born and raised in Toronto, Heisey was interested in writing and comedy from a young age and went to London in 2010 for a graduate degree in Shakespeare. “I performed comedy to meet people,” she says. “The comedy scene was incredible and I loved it, but my visa options ran out in 2014 and I came back to Canada.”
She wrote a funny advice column for the blog Shedoesthecity that became her first book, 2015’s I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better: A Woman’s Guide to Coping with Life. And she started working on an improv comedy series with a group of women, the Canadian Screen Award–winning Baroness von Sketch Show, which ran for five seasons on CBC Television. “It was my first writing job for television,” she says, adding, “There’s no linear path to TV writing. You meet someone who knows someone who follows someone.”
While in Toronto, Heisey got married and divorced, then landed back in London where she’s been living since 2019. “I wanted to be somewhere where I wasn’t an ex-wife.”
Heisey tells me all of her writing is about her life and her friends’ lives and what’s important. “Heartbreak,” she says, “feels like the end of the world, and it’s just as bad every single time. It’s not the end of the world even if it feels like it, and in the midst of it, there are comic elements.” She didn’t want to write a memoir because “a divorce has two sides—it’s a two-people story, and I was only writing about one.”
Making notes on feelings and little impressions, she started writing in January 2019. In spring 2020, Heisey told her agent at Janklow & Nesbit, Marya Spence, that she “thought she had something” and sent her 20,000 words.
“Monica and I have known each other for a decade,” Spence tells me. “I knew her writing and reached out asking her to get in touch if she was ever writing a book. She came to New York in August 2017 and we talked about a divorce book with a young character. We kept in touch, and then I got those 20,000 words, which were great.”
Spence and Heisey exchanged big chunks of material, talked about the characters, and by summer 2021, Spence submitted it widely, telling Heisey that publishing was a “hurry-up-and-wait business, and seeing as the world was in a state of implosion, it might take some time.”
Instead, Spence says, “I was getting emails from editors at all hours of the day and night about how they couldn’t stop reading. It was so clear that the book was touching people in a personal way, opening up whole conversations and all kinds of feelings. Then I knew it would happen quickly; it was a whirlwind.”
Jessica Williams, executive editor at Morrow, read it over the weekend. “Several people were reading it as well,” she recalls. “My colleagues in the U.K. had it. The book was churning!” Williams says that everything was still virtual: “I couldn’t run down the hall, but there were flares over email. A bunch of in-house editors had it, and there was tremendous excitement. It’s a rare submission that’s a laugh-out-loud comic novel. I could see the appeal and also thought we all needed something funny. The book can be called millennial, but it resonates across age and gender. And Monica captures the face we present to the world while we are crumbling inside.”
Williams talked to Heisey over Zoom and “fell in love.” She preempted Really Good, Actually within five days of receiving the manuscript, according to Spence, in a two-book North American rights deal for a “substantial amount.” HarperCollins Canada signed on to publish separately, and a day later Fourth Estate in the U.K. acquired British Commonwealth rights in a preempt for “a significant sum,” as reported in the Bookseller. “It was another beauty contest,” Williams says of the U.K. deal.
Williams and Kishani Widyaratna at Fourth Estate worked closely as an editorial team to ready the novel for publication. “Every phone call was both of us,” Williams says. “It was great to have a second perspective.”
Really Good, Actually has to date sold in 10 foreign territories in addition to the U.S., U.K., and Canada, and, Spence tells me, although the details are under wraps, “screen interest has been intense, with 24 bidders.”
Heisey says, “I wrote a book during the pandemic. It’s embarrassing!”
I tell her she’s not alone in writing a book during the pandemic, and that I’m the one who should be embarrassed. I didn’t even manage to clean out a closet.