This is such a delightful read about families, connection, and navigating life’s complications. Some of the most striking sections, of course, are the interludes from the perspective of Marcellus. Where did the idea come from to write from his perspective, and did you find integrating an octopus’s voice into the story challenging?
Shelby Van Pelt’s debut novel, Remarkably Bright Creatures, is so fun and sweet and just the right amount of surreal. There’s a smart, wily octopus named Marcellus; a woman looking for connection after the recent loss of her husband; a grocery store owner with a crush; and an adult “lost boy” just looking for somewhere to belong. And they’re all connected by a mystery that only the octopus has been able to solve. An added bonus? It’s set in our beloved Puget Sound. Van Pelt was kind enough to answer our questions about her delightful book.
Oh, Marcellus was so much fun to write! I guess I must’ve been a grouchy old man in a past life, because his voice came quite naturally to me. I got the idea to write him after watching a giant Pacific octopus try repeatedly to escape its enclosure in an internet video. The creature was so determined, and almost seemed condescending, somehow, of the folks trying to thwart him. Watching it, I thought to myself, there’s a character in there.
So, I went down an internet octopus rabbit hole, which I highly recommend if you have some time to kill. Octopuses unscrewing jars and solving puzzles and slipping out through cracks to raid neighboring tanks.
A little white later, I was taking a creative writing workshop and we were given an exercise to tell a story from an unusual point of view. My mind went straight to a curmudgeonly, escape-artist octopus. The little vignette I scrawled down in that class eventually became the opening pages of my book.
Where did the story come from for you? Was it inspired by any particular life experiences?
Tova, my main human character, was inspired by my late grandmother. She was this tiny Swedish lady who was so sweet and loving, yet also wore this stoic shell around her. Everything was always just fine
, and she was constantly finding something to do
, almost as if staying in motion could ward off any ill. We were very close when I was growing up. In fact, I lived next door to her. It was from watching her, I think, that I was inspired, as an adult, to write about someone who stays in perpetual motion, like a fish circling an aquarium, but in this case, to outpace their own grief.
A lot of my writing also centers around themes of loneliness and belonging, this book included. Most of my characters are sort of stuck in their own solitary orbits, resigned to inevitable outcomes, not realizing that if only they could connect with one another, life would be richer. But to do that, they must put themselves out there, get vulnerable and uncomfortable. It’s a challenge I relate to on a personal level, as someone who has moved around a bunch as an adult and had to start over with building communities and friendships many times. It’s something I still struggle with!
What research did you do while writing Remarkably Bright Creatures? Was there anything you learned that surprised you?
Most of my characters are sort of stuck in their own solitary orbits, resigned to inevitable outcomes, not realizing that if only they could connect with one another, life could be richer.
Let’s just say my party trick is citing weird facts about octopuses. (Not that I’ve been to many parties the last couple of years!)
But yes, I learned so much! I don’t have a formal biology background, but I pored over books and websites and spoke to folks at marine conservation organizations and zoos. And I spent a lot of time just hanging out at aquariums, lurking around the octopus enclosure, watching.
There’s a common meme/cartoon about octopuses that centers around multi-tasking, as in, wouldn’t it be nice if we had more arms? My favorite iteration is a sketch of an octopus reading eight books at once (living the dream, right there!) One of the most fascinating things I learned about octopuses was that those memes are quite representative of how octopuses operate. Unlike mammals, with centralized brains, the majority of an octopus’s neurons are spread among its arms. Each arm is uniquely clever, autonomous to some extent, and their limbs can even have distinct “personalities.” So yes, if an octopus somehow took to living in our world, they really might be able to stir the spaghetti sauce, grate the cheese, drain the pasta, set the table, and pour the wine all at once without much trouble!
The sense of place throughout is so strong and evocative. What was it like to write about a place where you grew up but don’t live any longer? Did it help to have a level of distance from the setting?
In some ways, Remarkably Bright Creatures
is a love letter to my home. I still have a ton of family in the Pacific Northwest, and it’s a place I miss very much. I felt that pain even more acutely when I was working on the bulk of this book during the pandemic, when traveling home for a visit wasn’t an option.
I do think having some distance was helpful. Rose-colored glasses, and all. I wanted Washington to show its best side, which is a big part of why I set the story in the summertime. There is nothing as glorious as a Seattle summer!
Throughout the book, there’s incredible compassion directed at animals — I’m thinking here about Marcellus and Tova’s very moving friendship, as well as the cat that Tova watches out for on the cat’s terms. I’d love to hear about your relationship to animals and how that influenced your writing.
I’ve always loved animals, and especially the kind that aren’t so cute and cuddly. I was totally that weird kid with a bedroom full of reptile tanks, lizards of all kinds. It was kind of funny when I had friends over as a teenager and there would be, like, crickets chirping in the basement, because some would always escape when I was feeding my crew. Ambiance, I suppose?
These days, I’m a cat person. My two cats are siblings, and they are extremely attached to each other, and to me. They tend to follow me around, so often they’re both hanging out when I’m writing. I do a lot of my writing at night after the rest of the household is in bed, so it can be helpful to have someone to talk to, you know, bounce ideas around with. They’re a tough audience. Most of my comments are met with an unimpressed stare. Cats and octopuses share some similarities, in that way, perhaps.
Can you tell us a little bit about the artistic influences for the book? Do you see this book as part of any traditions?
Most of my comments are met with an unimpressed stare. Cats and octopuses share some similarities, in that way, perhaps.
Many of my favorite books are just a tiny bit
weird or outlandish. Speculative-adjacent, I guess, where the setting feels overwhelmingly real, but there’s some oddball element or quirk that requires me to suspend disbelief. Like Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here
, where an otherwise-ordinary pair of children are prone to spontaneous combustion. Or Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing
where we get this very grounded, gritty setting paired with an otherworldly narrator.
I’m not sure if that’s a tradition, exactly, but it’s the sort of book I knew I wanted to write. Incorporating humor was also important to me. I love when I read a book about something heavy or sad and there are also laugh-out-loud funny moments.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Take the class. Sign up for the workshop. When I enrolled in the workshop I mentioned earlier — the one where I wrote what became the eventual opening of my book — I'd never taken a writing class before. But I had always enjoyed writing, and I was living in a new city, and figured it might be a fun way to meet people. It was a continuing-education class, open to anyone. I’ve since done similar workshops at other institutions, and I am a huge fan of the community classes, adult enrichment, whatever you want to call them. In my experience, they are full of lovely, unpretentious folks from all different walks of life and are a wonderful, accessible resource for anyone who wants to get into writing.
What do you hope readers take away from the book?
Remarkably Bright Creatures
is a book about getting un-stuck. Finding the courage to change course, to rewrite one’s own story, even if that story is nearing its end. To nurture the friendship or connection that appears when you least expect it. I hope that’s an uplifting message for readers. But honestly, if someone reads this book and then hangs around a little longer at the octopus exhibit next time they’re visiting an aquarium, I’d happy about that, too!
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Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Shelby Van Pelt lives in the suburbs of Chicago with her family. This is her first novel.