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Monica Duncan’s first novel, “Twine,” recalls growing up in small-town Michigan.
Monica Duncan’s first novel, “Twine,” recalls growing up in small-town Michigan. Jesika Theos

The day Monica Duncan’s younger son started kindergarten, she found herself “on the couch with a box of Kleenex on one side and a box of chocolates on the other. It felt like a transition. Suddenly I had no kids hanging off of me, and there was a freedom of thought and movement I hadn’t experienced in 10 years.”

Not that the Newburyport resident was exactly a slouch up to this moment four years ago. She has worked as a professional musician ever since her 20s, playing the clarinet in regional ensembles including the Lexington Symphony, the Cape Ann Symphony, the Hillyer Festival Orchestra, and the Salem Philharmonic, and is a music instructor at Pingree School, the River Valley Charter School, and in the Hamilton-Wenham School District.

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But as a freelance musician, she still had free time during the day. “After a couple of weeks of indulging in Lifetime movies, my laptop was calling to me like a siren, and I became obsessed with writing,” she said. “In retrospect, I think I was a latent writer all along. I’ve noticed that during times of transition in my life, I’d always sit down and write. The difference was that this time I didn’t stop.”

Fueled by a newfound sense of passion, Duncan began attending local author events to learn more about the writing process. When a published novelist at one such event described embarking upon her first book when her child started kindergarten, “It was just what I needed to hear,” recalled Duncan, who is now 46. “It meant I wasn’t too old. I hadn’t missed the boat.”

Duncan sought out that author’s advice, and the discussion that followed led her over the course of about a year to a developmental editor, a writers’ conference, agent pitches, and eventually a publishing contract. Duncan’s first novel, “Twine,” was published last September by Crowsnest Books, with a blurb from novelist Elinor Lipman and a recommendation from Parade Magazine.

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“It’s a social commentary on the places I call subrural, characterized by strip malls and Walmarts, not unlike where I grew up,” Duncan said. Like its author, the main character comes from Michigan, though she is an artist rather than a musician.

In the four months since her novel’s publication, Duncan has discovered something unexpected about how being a writer is different from being a musician.

“Readers connect with my writing in a way that I feel like I’ve been fighting for my whole life for as a classical musician,” she mused. “People are coming up to me in the grocery store to say, ‘I want to talk to you about this scene or that scene.’ ”

Almost never does an audience member wish to discuss a particular passage of music with a performer, Duncan pointed out. “As a writer, my relevance feels immediate.”

Hard at work now on her next novel, which is based on the real-life escape of two inmates from prison in upstate New York in 2015, Duncan is facing a full schedule of literary events in the upcoming months, with an author reading at the Peabody Barnes & Noble on Feb. 29; a panel talk at the Newburyport Literary Festival in April; and an appearance as a featured writer at London’s ReadFest in September.

Nor has her commitment to the regional symphony circuit lessened. “I’m toggling both identities and feeling fulfilled and overjoyed.”

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Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@gmail.com