Monica Duncan explores empowerment and ambition in her debut novel ‘Twine’

Monica Duncan‘s Twine is a sharp commentary on the socioeconomics of America that is as endearing as it is a warning. It follows a struggling artist who ends up back in her small home town struggling with what motherhood means for her ambitious career plans.

Duncan, a professional musician, has a keen eye on the subtleties on struggle. What happens to Juniper, the main character, isn’t over the top. That’s part of what made Twine so gripping. It’s ability to tackle serious issues with dark humor allows readers to see their own errors in the characters and relate to the peaks and valleys within the book.

I corresponded with Duncan via email to find out more about Twine.

I wanted to start with who Monica Duncan is and how you became a writer. What led you to this point in your career?

It’s funny, I went to school for music, and have been a musician my whole life (I am a professional clarinetist), but I don’t put all my stock in that as an identity. The act of creating and thinking creatively would more accurately describe what is important to me. So when I found myself writing everyday after the age of forty, I just thought “Oh, okay. This is fun.” 

I had always thought that music would be the only place I’d seriously invest myself artistically. But if I look back on my life more carefully, I can see that moments of transition were often marked with bursts of writing. When I started writing this most recent time (right after my youngest son started kindergarten—definitely a time of transition), I intensely fell in love with it. And I knew it wasn’t just a crush either when I got to the day-to-day grind of revisions and still loved it! 

I’ve always loved books, and playing with words. I’ve always thrilled at seeing things from a new angle and being able to articulate those things. I guess what I’m really saying, is that I think I was a latent writer all along. And at this point, there is no turning back. 

Was Twine your first attempt at a novel? What other works have you explored prior to this?

Twine was not my first attempt. I had written another novel that was somewhat embarrassingly autobiographical (not even intentionally), and is in the proverbial drawer where it belongs. But the thing with that first novel is, the act of writing it taught me how to write a novel. It was the best on-the-job training I think I’ve ever gotten. I’ve also tried my hand at many short stories. Still working on nailing those.

Juniper is obviously the anchor of your book. How did she come to exist and how did she develop since conception?

Juniper was just kind of born; I feel like my subconscious was in charge there. In fact, it wasn’t until after I was finished writing Twine that I realized Juniper was a pretty good mash-up of three different people I’ve known in my life: a close friend, a relative, and a high school acquaintance. 

Also, I wanted to have fun with Juniper, so I made her kind of quiet because I’m a bit of a chatter. I enjoyed showing the empty spaces that she might have filled with conversation if she were someone like me. 

And the most significant way I showed Juniper’s development was to shape her as an artist. It is often in retrospect that an artist’s growth is obvious. And in Juniper’s case, her increase in output was measurable and her artistic voice emerged loud and clear, both of which made her character arc fun and easy.

It’s so realistic for recent college graduates, especially in creative majors, to be unable to find work. People from a generation or two above the current one don’t seem to understand how this is possible. Was this always something you wanted to write about and explore?

I didn’t even think about consciously exploring the dearth of steady work for an artist because I am just so matter-of-fact about it. I do know that I moved east to find more work myself as a musician. I wanted to up the odds, you know? The Boston area has been good to me. 

I believe that many people think of the arts as icing on a cake. If you have everything you need, then that concert or museum or play might be nice. Many people don’t think of art as integral to their living as much as it really is, so it’s not valued in schools or with people’s wallets like I wish it were. 

You went to college in Michigan. How much did that time influence you writing to the setting in the book?

I actually grew up in Michigan, and lived in many different places there—including Gobles, where the novel is set. Because my formative years were spent in Michigan, there is no doubt for me that Twine is partly a reaction to that time. Even early in the writing process I felt the impetus for telling this particular story was to create a social commentary on these kind of places in middle America. I wanted to talk about static poorness, first-world poverty, and how they create a stifling culture for so many of us. 

What lessons do you hope Juniper can teach readers?

I didn’t set out to create a character for the purpose of instilling a sense of empowerment in my readers. But—once she was fully formed, I saw how her choices could take on a life of their own. And now I definitely hope readers see her as someone defying odds, staying true to her heart, and making decisions that thwart her cultural norms and the reader’s expectations. She exemplifies hope and empowerment and I want her to buoy reader’s thoughts about what is possible in their own life—especially if they come from a background similar to hers. 

The book itself is out on a smaller press. What made Crowsnest the perfect home for Twine?

Right before I signed with Crowsnest, I had just become hopeful about publication because I was getting so much good feedback from agents. I knew I had a book that could sell. A friend suggested I submit to Crowsnest, and when they made the offer to publish I jumped at it. And I have to say, having my first book published through a small press was likely the best thing that could have happened to me as a debut novelist. It has been absolutely wonderful to work with them because the one-on-one attention has been priceless. This process (three rounds of edits, settling on a book cover, nailing that 150-word description) was made better because I had several people helping me—patiently—with each step on the path to publication. Despite their small size, the entire process was likely streamlined due to their focus on getting one book out the door at a time. I actually enjoyed the editing parts, by the way!

What should readers look out for next coming from you?

Unfortunately, with the new publicity I’ve gotten for Twine, I have been asked to keep mum about the details of my next book. If the project is allowed to continue, it will be a divergence on the surface, but both books are meant as commentaries on places such as Gobles, Michigan where there are fairly rigid socioeconomic constraints. These stories are both about the choices that people make in reaction to feeling disempowered. I always want my stories to be about shining a light on the characters more than the events that surround them.

Adam Vitcavage is the founder of Debutiful. His interviews and criticism have also appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste Magazine, and more.

Visit Monica Duncan at her website and follow her on Twitter.

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