ON BEING FUNNY & UNCOOL
Monica Heisey is our Type Reader for July
Monica Heisey seems to have a million jobs, but in reality she only has a lot of them. She is a freelance writer and editor. She is a comedian. She just finished up a stint as a writer and story editor on CBC’s new all-female Baroness Von Sketch Show. In between all this she managed to write one of Type’s most popular titles of 2015, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better. Next she is off to New York to edit Broadly, Vice Media’s new lady-focused project.
Monica talks to Type's Serah-Marie McMahon about making jokes, fear of make-up, and why you should read books that make you a little bit weird.
SMM: So you are a super busy lady. How was the most recent gig – writing for The Baroness Von Sketch Show?
MH: It was amazing. It was my first TV writing job, and there really are as many snacks as they tell you there are going to be. I was working with women who were a lot more experienced than me, and it was just so great to come in every day and be surrounded by all this wisdom, but also humour. It’s one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had.
SMM: I notice there are a lot of Toronto writers who are starting to do television, women especially.
MH: Yeah! I think it’s a natural crossover for women. Especially because I think women’s writing can be more effusive, and more dramatic. Presentational. There is less of a virtue amongst woman writers to sparseness. Or simplicity even. I think it works.
SMM: So who do you find really funny right now?
MH: There are two writers who I’m fairly obsessed with, Hazel Cills and Gaby Noone. I think they are literally teenagers. They might be freshly 20? But I just think they are so funny, and so much cooler than I was when I was 19. And I kind of thought you had to be uncool as a teenager to be funny in the first place—they are running that preconception into the ground.
SMM: Do you think you were not cool as a teenager?
MH: Oh, I know I wasn’t cool. I was so uncool in a number of different trademark uncool ways. I was a chubby kid, I read at recess. As a ten-year-old, I made my fifth grade class produce and perform the theatrical adaptation I wrote of The Count of Monte Cristo. But I had only read the first 500 pages of a 1000 page book, so I gave it a happy ending. The real ending is like many murders, and suicides, and double crossing, and I think possibly incest. But I just made a version that was like, what if it was fun? What if it all worked out? It wasn’t exactly conducive to not being bullied.
SMM: What else where you reading as a kid?
MH: My reading list at that age was largely curated by my parents. The first time I remember my dad coming home with a big stack of books just for me, it was all of the Nancy Drew books. At the time I was excited – a smart redhead with a lawyer dad! She’s basically me! Maybe one day I’ll know how to do dressage and low-level crime-solving! I plowed my way though those, and while they weren’t particularly satisfying, at the time it was about being involved in a more exciting story.
After Nancy Drew, I got really into Charles Dickens, The Hobbit, Alexander Dumas. A lot of classics by old white dudes. And then I hit on historical fiction and I got lost there for a while. French Revolution and American Revolution particularly.
I also loved the Royal Diaries, which was a Scholastic series that told fictional stories of real female princesses though out world history. It made it easier to understand all these historical figures and events when it’s being presented alongside things that make sense to you as a twelve-year-old. Plus they are all wearing really good outfits.
SMM: Do you still read historical fiction now?
SMM: What do you read?
MH: I feel like since finishing my masters, it’s like teaching myself to read again. I spent so much time immersed in what is considered the classics of the western canon. Which are great, and have their value… but reading for pleasure was a foreign concept after five and a half years of being guided by professors and lectures and class notes. I had almost no experience with contemporary writing at all. I found it really intimidating. I had a few false starts. I loved 10:04, but his earlier book, Leaving The Atocha Station , I hated it. I mean, oooooh, a sad overeducated man who is having too much sex, and going to too many parties. Boo hoo. I know twelve of that man, and I’ve got his emails. I don’t need to read his book as well. Not that Ben Lerner is that way, but the character certainly. I was very bored by that story.
Then I read I Love Dick by Chris Krauss, which theoretically hits a lot of the same buttons but was so interesting to me and so different from everything I’d been reading. It’s possible though that it just came into my life at a better time; I was relationship angsty but also relationship excited when I was reading it. I sent some weird emails during that time. I sent so many long, sort of imitative emails, asking abstract questions and being bolder than I might normally have been. That’s how I try to read now, to read a book that makes you a little bit weird for the portion of time that you are reading it.
SMM: Do you often find reading other people’s work has an effect on your writing?
Oh my god so much. When I was writing my book, I had a big pile of next to my bed that I would read when I was loosing my way.
SMM: What was in the pile?
MH: How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran, I think she is very funny and incisive. Very to the point. I can sometimes meander, so it’s a nice lesson in saying what you mean and making that funny, instead of making tangential jokes and then explaining what you mean after.
Also Fran Lebowitz. She is so smart and dry and devastating. Very snobby, and maybe problematic. But I’m sure she wouldn’t give a shit that I was saying that, which was a good reminder as well. If someone is trying to make you read Woody Allen, just give them Fran Lebowitz instead. I also had Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham and Yes Please by Amy Poehler.
SMM: Do you think a book has to make jokes to be funny?
MH: No. No. It can be kind of tiring when a book is making a lot of jokes. That’s why I broke I Can't Believe It's Not Better into smaller chunks, because that tone substained through an entire novel would be exhausting. Jon Ronson does journalism with a nice sense of humour. I like when non-fiction can be funny. I do love a good pop research book.
SMM: I am actually really into quirky pop culture non-fiction. It’s my favourite thing to read right now.
MH: Me too! That and oral histories. I bought Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live for my husband for Christmas and I keep picking it up when he puts it down.
I recently finished Poking a Dead Frog, which is conversations with some of the big comedy writers working right now. I’ve really been into things I can pick up and put down. When I am reading a novel, I take it into the bath so I can’t have my phone with me. Otherwise it’s really bad – I’ll read like two, three pages and then check my phone, and then read another page, check my phone. With an oral history you don’t need to get in as deep. It’s like, here is what Kristen Wiig has to say, then I’m going to do a dumb tweet about getting lost on the subway. And then I can go back and read Bill Hader’s comments and I don’t feel bad about it, and I can still absorb it.
SMM: Would you ever write a non-fiction book?
MH: Yeah! I think I could.
SMM: What would you write about?
MH: I would love if there was a way to talk about the Renaissance. I think it’s such a funny time period. It might be a tough sell though… I mean, a funny pop culture book about like, fear of make-up in the Renaissance?
SMM: Um, that sounds fantastic.
MH: Actually, I think there are a lot of parallels to be drawn between Renaissance tracts about fear of make-up, and comments on YouTube make-up tutorials. The fear is the same. Women are tricking men by painting their faces to make them prettier than they are, on contouring videos in particular commenters are just going nuts. The fear seems to be that it’s not authentic, that it’s not honest. The options seem to be “be beautiful” or “be a liar” because apparently you can’t be unattractive. That would be the worst.
There is a lot of fear about deception and make-up. Which I think exists still.
SMM: What do you think of Selfie?
MH: I liked it. I think Kim Kardashian is very interesting. Though I was talking about that at a dinner party recently and someone asked me if I’d ever seen the show and I had to reply no. So I feel like I can’t have a fully informed opionion unless I’ve seen the show. To me, they seem self-aware and silly and fun. Putting out a book of selfies with an art imprint is so funny. I think that’s so funny of her. It suggests to me that her or her team is not only really smart but has a good sense of humour. Good for her for taking control of her extreamly marketable image. Why the hell not?
SMM: You did Authors For Indies with Type.
MH: Yeah! It was so fun.
SMM: Part of that was choosing titles to recommend to Type customers, can you tell me about what you picked?
MH: Carry on Jeeves by PG Woodhouse – it’s legitimately one of the funniest things I’ve ever read in my life. Woodhouse is British author who wrote more than 90 books between 1902 and 1974, he does social satire of the upper classes. It’s my favourite combination, which is that it’s stupid and silly but also devastatingly intelligent. When you can combine those two things, it’s just perfect.
Everyone should read all of Simon Rich’s books, I just think he is a genius. The Last Girlfriend on Earth was one of the first books that I picked up as a younger person and was like oh, this is what I want to do. I think he has a keen but also kind eye. The stories make fun of the right people. He takes mundane everyday things and expands them until they are ludicrous, and by so doing points out how ludicrous the mundane is. All his books have made me laugh out loud on the subway. And I think if you can’t seem to be having more fun than the other people on your commute then there is no point in taking a book on the train.
interview by Serah-Marie McMahon