Monica Duncan’s debut novel Twine is the beautiful story of a young woman who builds a life she never could have imagined in a town she never would have chosen. This book deftly explores true-to-life themes including the bond between a mother and daughter, as well as the struggle to stay true to oneself despite life’s hardships.
The Nerd Daily had the opportunity to talk with Duncan about everything from Twine as a larger social commentary to how her experiences growing up in Michigan influenced her writing. And we even learned the fantastic free perk that came along with her first job! Read on for more!
Hi Monica! Tell us a little about yourself!
Hello and thank you for these really thoughtful questions. I am a Michigan native now happily living on the East Coast. I have spent most of my my professional life here as a classical clarinetist and music teacher, but am thrilled to have stepped into the writing world with my debut novel Twine.
I love being a wife and mother, living near the ocean, art museums, listening to music, exploring new places, trying new food, running, and of course reading.
The title of your debut novel, Twine, is both simple and meaningful. It also seems to allow for some interpretation by the reader. How did you land on this title for your book? What is the significance of the title in the context of this story?
I love words that have different meanings from different angles, or are just jam-packed with multiple meanings. I think this word—the title—encapsulates the intent of the story very tidily. I don’t want to give the exact moment of meaning away, but thinking of the title was definitely one of those light bulb moments for me. Even though the word “twine” is used explicitly only twice in the book, once I knew what the title would be, it became a thematic destination.
Fun fact: I had always heard that editors or publishers or someone would want to change your title once you got a publishing deal. But not a single person who read the early versions Twine has even suggested a title change. I had good luck on that one!
The setting of this novel – a real city by the name of Gobles, Michigan – is almost a character itself, in terms of how it influences the characters we meet throughout the story and the course of their lives. Could you speak a bit more about this, in terms of your desire to focus on a rural setting in the United States?
I actually lived in Gobles for a year when I was in kindergarten, and I thought this place might capture something unintentionally static about the sub-rural Midwest. That was especially important to me, as Twine is meant as a social commentary on places where people who feel a lack of opportunity for upward mobility characterize the culture. I use the people of a fictitious Gobles as a representation of this way of living.
But through the main character Juniper’s struggles within that harsh climate, we witness a young woman weave her hope, her art, her love as a mother, daughter, and someone who is invested in the very place we were rooting for her to escape.
You explore many universal themes in Twine such as romantic relationships, female friendships, family bonds, generational trauma, and the experience of becoming a mother. Without giving any spoilers, what are some key messages that you hope the reader will take away from your book?
The sentiment ‘how to be your own hero’ might encompass all of the messages I hope readers will take away from Twine. Because being our own hero is not just about self-sufficiency and strength. Empowerment of this kind is about accepting and giving love. Accepting and giving help. Learning from our mistakes. Being open in those ways allows our own power to rise up and guide us. In Juniper’s case, we witness a true, if unexpected, realization of a young woman’s potential.
The main character in Twine, Juniper, comes across as very relatable in both the experiences she has and her emotions surrounding these experiences. Like Juniper, you grew up in Michigan. Was her character influenced by any real life experiences you had growing up there?
Oh yes. I come from places where there was too much underemployment and not enough money and opportunity for education.
Like Juniper, I grew up (mostly) in Michigan, but it was fun for me to have Juniper explore the opposite of what I did in some cases. I really do think that Juniper’s reactions to her situation thwart our expectations. I want her actions to make the reader question their own assumptions: What is success? What does it mean to be a family? Do we blindly embrace too much of our mid-American culture? What are things that we assume are important, that maybe aren’t?
The arts are obviously an important part of your life, as you are both a writer and a musician. Why was it important for Juniper to be a visual artist in this novel?
That feeling of creativity and need to create has colored my entire life, and even though Twine is not at all autobiographical, I wanted to depict that drive in my main character. Juniper emerged as an artist in some of the very first scenes, creating a visual element to the story that I found joyful to write. With words, I could depict complementary colors and palpable textures and ‘different flavors of white.’ But more than all of that, I realized that Juniper being an artist allowed the reader to see her growth. Her output became somehow quantifiable, if not qualifiable, as she travelled her own path. The reader can see her character growth as her output of creativity exploded.
What are your go-to book recommendations for others (both new releases this year and all-time favorites)?
As far as an all-time favorite, I would recommend any novel by Elizabeth Strout. I love how she depicts relationships. She is both literary and accessible, and I am a big fan. And I have newly fallen for the virtuosic writing of both Jennifer Egan (Manhattan Beach, A Visit from the Good Squad) and Lauren Groff (Fates and Furies, Florida.)
Do you have a routine or schedule that you follow when you are writing? How do you balance the many and varied roles in your life (wife, mother, writer, musician, teacher)?
It’s almost best when I don’t think about this question too hard! I will say I tend to work a lot, but I am still able to be physically present fairly often so that my kids can interrupt me all the time, and know I’m here for them.
My freelance life does create a very inconsistent schedule, so I would call my routine “writing in the cracks of time.” It may sound less than ideal, but it’s what I’ve got, and I believe it energizes my writing, and creates a heightened awareness. I do not discount moments. For me, creation can happen in ten seconds as well as in a twelve-hour day of writing or editing. So I write anywhere, any time, and find that very exciting.
Your website indicates that you are currently working on a piece of creative nonfiction about a prison guard charged with aiding the escape of two murderers in 2015 – a guard who also happens to be your brother-in-law. Could you share a bit more about this work-in-progress and your decision to move in such a different direction with your second book?
For me there was actually an immediate, although not obvious, overlap between these two stories: Both works are set in a place with fairly rigid socioeconomic constraints. In places such as these, people can be “striangulated.” There are not enough jobs, enough money, or enough educational opportunities. In this “strangling triangle” of ‘not enough’ any point of the triad is effected by and affects the other two points. I believe the rural North Country of New York State where my brother-in-law’s prison is located and the subrural area in Michigan that I depict in Twine are both places that exemplify the disempowerment that characterizes not only the people who live there, but the choices they make.
Like Twine, the start of my second book sort of just happened. My brother-in-law called to tell that us convicts had escaped from the prison where he worked. And we were on that emotional journey with him as the federal agents hunted down the murderers while eventually charging him with aiding the escape. All I could think about was the dichotomy between the kind of man I knew he was and what was happening to him. I thought: How can a prison guard start on one side of the bars and end up on the other? And from there I began writing this novel, Scapegoat. At first it was just fiction. Because I love literary fiction, I was drawn to the whys more than the hows. I was writing a character-driven piece about a man’s unexpected fall from grace. I wanted to know why someone self-selects into a profession where daily violence is the norm, why was his status as a revered guard amongst the prison population was so important to his identity?
And not too long after I began writing, my brother-in-law was released from prison and asked me to help him tell his version of events, which was a request I didn’t want to turn away from. To me, his personal story holds as much intrigue as the prison escape itself.
Let’s Get Nerdy: Behind the Writer with 9 Quick Questions
First book that made you fall in love with reading: One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss. (I fell in love early.)
3 books you would take on a desert island: The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (time to fill some gaps in my reading), and the Tao Te Ching.
Movie that you know by heart: Oddly, “Best in Show”
Song that makes you want to get up and dance: “September” by Earth, Wind, and Fire. Maybe it was fate with my pub date that I’ve always loved that song!
Place that everyone should see in their lifetime: Japan
Introvert or extrovert: Extrovert who enjoys spending time alone
Coffee, tea, or neither: Coffee
First job: Concessions at movie theater. Two words—Free Popcorn
Person you admire most and why: The teachers in my life: Music, English, Gym, Art, every subject. My teachers were the ones who saw my potential, who encouraged me and fed me their positivity and knowledge. Collectively, they were so much a part of the fuel that got me where I am today.