In conversation with Haley McGee
IN CONVERSATION WITH
Haley McGee was born and raised in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. At seventeen, she moved to Toronto, where she received a BFA in Acting from X University and subsequently worked as an actor and playwright until she relocated to the UK in 2016.
Heralded as "the formidable Haley McGee" (The Globe and Mail), her award-winning, critically acclaimed solo shows have played in thirty-six venues in eleven countries and been translated into four languages.
Haley now lives in London, UK, where she thrives on variety—she writes, acts, performs improv, does voice-overs, teaches artists in an array of online courses and hosts The Cost of Love podcast. Her debut novel, The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale, was released in February of this year.
Haley and I connected over email earlier this month to chat about her first novel, her solo shows, the challenges of being a writer, some of her favourite books, and one brilliant cover design.
Firstly, how does it feel to have your debut novel out in the world? It must be uncanny seeing your book in the wild. I've come across The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale at all my local bookstores, and must say, it definitely stands out among the crowd.
Ah! I’m so glad that you saw it at your local bookstore. It’s a thrilling feeling seeing my book “in the wild” as you say. Though, I always look for it in bookstores with a healthy dose of humility after hearing David Sedaris mention that looking for your book in a bookstore is something authors should never do, because if it’s there, it’ll inevitably be on a bottom shelf or in a corner—never in the place of prominence you’d hope it would be.
Before your book came out, you made quite a name for yourself with your award-winning, critically acclaimed solo shows, having played in thirty-six venues in eleven countries. Tell me more about that.
I trained as an actor and came to writing a book through creating theatre projects. I’d always been a big reader and loved writing, and as a young actor it felt really exciting to be able to write characters and stories for myself. Not only was it a channel for a different kind of creativity I possessed, but it allowed me to have some agency over what roles I played and when I worked. I didn’t have to wait to be cast. Solo shows really appealed to me as a writer and performer because of the direct relationship with the audience and the space they allow for the internal life of a character to come through.
Getting back to the book, The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale, what a title, how did you come up with it?
The genesis for the book was a conversation I had with my credit card company, in which I promised to pay down my bill by having a yard sale. Then I looked around my apartment and realized the only things I could sell had all been given to me by different people I’d dated. When I hung up, THE EX-BOYFRIEND YARD SALE popped into my head. It made me laugh. It was a gift from the gods.
I love the cover design. What's the story there? Did you go through many reiterations to arrive at a final design? What you landed on seems perfect for what's inside.
Haha. We must have tried twenty different designs before landing on this one. I knew that I wanted the title to be the star of the cover, and the price stickers were proposed by the designer. We all agreed this cover worked best.
What were some of the most difficult parts of writing the book for you? I assume penning the memoir throughout the pandemic was a challenge, but I'm sure you experienced a host of other emotions as well while going back in time.
This book is adapted from my autobiographical solo show (also called The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale) which I perform for audiences. Working on the book, I realized I only had words to convey the story. I know that sounds like stating the obvious. But I’d been so used to being able to rely on the tone and pace of my voice, a raise of my eyebrow, a hand gesture here and there and my relationship with the audience. I felt I was in control of how the audience was receiving the story. If I felt they weren’t getting it, I could slow down, adjust, clarify.
A book is a private experience for a reader. I needed to imbue what was on the page with all the details I could act out on stage. And I had to relinquish my desire for control, not being able to tell the story to each reader, face to face.
As anyone in publishing knows, it's not easy writing or publishing a book. Perseverance is key. Who inspired you most while you were writing and kept you going at times you felt like giving up?
I don’t know that I ever felt like giving up. There were hard days—hard weeks even—but I didn’t think giving up was an option. That said, it’s important to know that I was in the incredible position of having sold my book to publishers off a book proposal (because it’s a work of non-fiction), so I’d been paid a portion of my advance and there were deadlines in place—those things are incredibly motivating!
When I’m teaching artists in my solo show course, I talk a lot about creating deadlines and accountability checks for yourself. These don’t have to be external professional bodies. This can be anything from inviting a handful of friends around for a reading or setting a deadline with a colleague you trust.
Lastly, do you have any book recommendations for my readers?