Here is Inside Scoop on our Favorite Octopus and the Writing of this bestseller!
We had a wonderful conversation with Shelby Van Pelt on Zoom to discuss her debut novel, Remarkably Bright Creatures. Check out some of the beautiful book covers seen around the world above and please enjoy the video interview and written Q & A below!
Q: Did you always want to be a writer? How old were you when you started?
A: I’ve always enjoyed writing, but I never really attempted fiction until I was in my thirties. I had just moved to a new city and got a continuing-education brochure from the local university in the mail and decided to sign up for a creative writing class on a whim!
Q: When did you begin writing Remarkably Bright Creatures and how long did it take you from start to finish?
A: By one measure, it took about eight years: way back then, I had the idea, wrote some scenes. But then, like the rookie that I was, I spent the next several years repeatedly revising those first few chapters. I also had kids during those years, so my writing was very on-and-off for a while, adjusting to being a parent. Finally, in 2019, I got myself motivated to finally finish the thing. I made a pact with a writing buddy and we exchanged pages every single week for about nine months, which is about how long it took to draft most of the book, aside from those first couple of chapters.
Q: How did you find a publisher and what was the process like for you leading up to pub day?
A: My path to publication was fairly traditional. I cold-queried agents and was incredibly fortunate to find representation quickly. I’m sure it helped that the Netflix documentary “My Octopus Teacher” had become a hit the same month I was querying – a stroke of luck I couldn’t have planned if I’d tried!
After my agent and I did some edits to the manuscript, it went out to publishers, and we had several interested, so the deal went to auction…which is still mind-blowing to me, even now.
The months that followed are a blur of editing…and more editing and copyediting and proofing! I think I read RBC cover-to-cover at least six or seven times during those few months. And as pub day neared, I also found myself taking a crash course in public speaking. Writing a novel and speaking about it to an audience are two different talents, and my human-in-public skills had atrophied a bit during the pandemic.
Q: The book is set in Sowell Bay, a small coastal town. Why did you decide to set the book here?
A: Small towns are so much fun to read and write! I knew I needed a tight-knit community and its rumor mill for the story to work, so that part was easy to settle on. And I was stuck on the idea of sea creatures being held “captive” with only a wall separating them from their natural home. I needed Marcellus to feel the closeness of his potential freedom.
Q: What interests you about an aquarium?
A: Even as a kid, I loved aquariums. The fictional aquarium in Sowell Bay is modeled on one that I spent a lot of time at in my hometown of Tacoma, WA. It was this mid-century cement dome with no windows, and it was always dark and damp and smelly inside, but I loved it. Being in there like being let in on a secret.
As an adult, zoos and aquariums stir mixed feelings within me. I absolutely love having the opportunity to peer into the worlds of incredible creatures, and I am so grateful for the important conservation, education, and rescue work that these organizations undertake. But it’s not always comfortable being the human in that relationship.
Q: Why choose one of your main characters to be a snarky, curmudgeon octopus?
A: I got the idea from an internet video. I had just started trying to write fiction, and I saw this clip of a giant Pacific octopus trying to escape its tank…I remember thinking to myself, wow, what a fun character that would make.
Once I had the idea of a captive octopus narrating his daily life, the snarky, holier-than-thou voice came to me immediately. It just seemed to fit so naturally.
Q: How did you come up with his name?
A: Originally, I wanted to name him Marcus Aurelius after the stoic philosopher. After all, he had a daily practice of meditating on his own looming death, and I thought the idea of an octopus named after a Roman emperor was hilarious. (I still think it’s kind of fantastic!) But my critique partners (correctly) nudged me toward something that rolls off the tongue a bit easier. So, I made a portmanteau and arrived at Marcellus, which I love even more. I can’t imagine him being anything else!
Q: What kind of research did you have to do to learn more about octopuses?
A: There’s a lot of octopus on the internet. I think I’ve devoured most of it at this point, but if you are ever looking to fritter away an afternoon, google anything related to octopuses and puzzles/escaping/intelligence and you’ll find yourself in a delightful rabbit hole!
When I was doing my initial drafting, honestly, I never thought Marcellus would be published, so I didn’t worry a ton about scientific accuracy beyond what Google could tell me. But when I got more serious about prepping my manuscript to query, I asked friends and contacts in the marine biology world to read it over, and I’m endlessly grateful for their help in making Marcellus as realistic as possible.
Studying octopuses from my armchair-writer vantage has been so amazing, and science is still learning so much about them. I look forward to whatever amazing discoveries come next!
Q: I love hearing Marcellus’s voice – his thoughts and observations. You have successfully walked a fine line between realistic and absurd. How did you achieve that balance to appeal to all types of readers and not just fantasy fans? Were there many revisions to Marcellus and his philosophical rants?
A: Yeah, that was a difficult line to walk! And I’m so grateful to my critique partners and marine-bio friends for keeping me on the correct side of believability, because let me tell you…once you have a haughty octopus living in your head for a while, that creature will convince you it can do just about anything.
As a reader, I adore books with a dash of absurdity, so I knew that was the sort of story I’d write. But the true feat is to draw readers in so wholly that they almost forget about the speculative quirk and just accept it as part of the book’s world. Think Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here or Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. In my mind, they’re the greats of this “weird but literary” genre that I aspire to belong to.
Q: When you were writing Tova, did you aim to make her life parallel to Marcellus in the sense that they both were sad/lonely, planning out the end of their days?
A: Yes, from the conception of both characters, I knew they were both stuck, and just sort of…fizzling out in their later-in-life years.
When I was in the early conceptual stages of the book, I spent a lot of time hanging out at the Georgia Aquarium, near where I lived in Atlanta at the time, hoping to vibe with their giant Pacific octopus. But what stuck with me more, maybe, was the way the various inhabitants of their huge main tank just sort of…circulated. Like, every few minutes, the same stingray or turtle goes by, same path, over and over. Not so different from the ruts that we humans find ourselves stuck in. And I think that’s Tova’s problem, in aquarium terms. She’s circling, and she’s busy and productive, but where is she going?
Q: The feeling that it’s never too late applies to many of the characters and that gives the story an upbeat and hopeful feeling. Did you intend to write a little mystery with a positive vibe?
A: So many readers have written saying how much they loved the positive vibes from RBC, and I love that! I wrote much of the book, particularly the last half, during the early months of the pandemic and, well…I’m not sure I ever considered it ending any other way. Some of my pre-pandemic short fiction is darker, but RBC couldn’t have been a dark story. It had to be happy and hopeful.
Q: In terms of ease and value of relationships, what do you think about the connection between people vs the connection between a person and an animal? Tova and Marcellus share thoughts with each other, not really knowing if they are being heard. Does the telling serves a purpose? Q: Do you think they provided opportunity for each other to realize they are still able to contribute and be valuable?
A: The telling absolutely serves a purpose, especially for someone like Tova. She has never found anyone she felt comfortable confiding in, not even her longtime friends, the Knitwits. The Knitwits love Tova, and they’d do anything for her, but they tend to try to fix her, which causes her to shut down. For Tova, talking to Marcellus is refreshing in that he listens without judging (an irony I adore, considering that Marcellus is so judgmental of humankind in general).
From Marcellus’s perspective, it’s not clear who with whom he’s communicating. Does he know there’s a reader? In writing Marcellus, I wanted to borrow from the science-fiction trope of a lone figure on a faraway planet, sending missives to whoever might be able to receive them, just hoping to connect on some level.
Q: How did you decide to have Marcellus recognize and tell us about the connection between Cameron and Tova?
A: The “reveal” from Marcellus at the midpoint of the novel was deliberately timed that way. I never wanted it to be some big twist, and I tried to set it up so that readers might suspect it in the run-up to Marcellus’s reveal, then the tension in the last half of the novel would be around this “will-they-or-won’t-they” question. (Side note: most of my primary critique partners write romance and rom-com, and I think it’s fascinating when I find romance tropes in my own work. The missed connection trope was top of my mind when writing Cameron and Tova, and even though it’s not a romantic connection in this case, I feel like it works well to cause that frustration and tension.)
Q: Did you plant the clues about Cameron’s father on purpose, adding them in at strategic places for a slow reveal or did they just come naturally as you were writing?
A: I always had a good idea of how I wanted the relationships between Simon/Daphne and Cameron/Simon to take shape…and the fact that transformative friendships can happen outside of the world’s assumptions about gender-based romantic roles is a subtle theme of the book. But I am a haphazard plotter, so I would say that any clues probably either happened in the editing phase or just…accidentally. Er, fortuitously.
Q: Pace is important in your novel and that feeling that we are racing against the clock looking for the truth to be revealed before something happens is constant and consistent. Do you think much about pace when writing and did you have to add anything in during revisions to keep it moving forward?
A: Pace isn’t something I think about a ton when drafting, but it’s a huge consideration when editing. And especially during those third-act scenes, because that’s when the metaphorical clocks appear, along with the palpable sense that if these folks don’t figure it out now, they’ll lose everything they’ve strived for.
I did a lot of cutting out extraneous scenes and revising in the last 50 or so pages. The fake-leaving thing is hard to pull off! One of my longtime critique partners, who was reading my manuscript as I wrote it, basically forbade me from doing the “gets on a plane then disembarks at the last minute” airport scene. You know the one. She hates it. And I don’t disagree! But naturally, that sort of setup was my first thought for the scene where Cameron decides to flounce out of Sowell Bay. I’m glad I took my critique partner’s advice and found a different way to accomplish the same objective.
Q: It is always a pleasure to read a sentence that has the title in it and yours comes at the very end when Marcellus describes humans as dull and blundering but occasionally remarkably bright creatures. How did you decide on the title?
A: As a reader, I love coming upon the title in the text. And in RBC, it’s there twice – in the first chapter, when Marcellus describes what the plaque by his tank says about octopuses, and then again at the end, as you mentioned.
Honestly, I didn’t have a title until the last minute. The document was saved on my computer as various iterations of “Marcellus_v4.3.12_final_FINAL_FINALwithrevisions” (you get the idea) until I was trying to create a query letter for agents. At that point, I kind of panicked, and ended up going through this detailed title-finding exercise that a writer friend kindly shared with me. It asked 100+ questions about the manuscript and, basically, had you mine the text for title inspiration. That’s when I came upon that description of octopuses, and I knew it was perfect.
Q: Was it coincidence that Marcellus and Erik both died in the bay or did you plan that?
A: I suppose it was planned in that I always knew Erik had died in the bay (although the circumstances of when and how changed through the drafting process), and I always knew that Marcellus would know freedom before he died. The latter I knew from the moment that I created the character…that this captive octopus would somehow make it out alive and taste the sea before passing away. As I got deeper into Tova’s character and story, of course, the significance of those two deaths became more clear, and I remember at some point realizing that I needed Tova to be the one to release Marcellus into the bay…for them to have a proper goodbye, symbolizing the goodbye she never had a chance to give Erik.
Q: The story ending was upbeat and hopeful – why did you choose to end on that positive note?
A: Well…I like happy endings! As I mentioned earlier, many of my critique partners write romance, where the happy-ever-after reigns supreme. I suppose some of that has probably rubbed off on me. My favorite endings to read are those that are happy but still a bit messy…that make me feel like things are on the right track, like the wheels are attached to the wagon but maybe there are a few screws loose.
I think writing the last half of RBC during the early months of the pandemic nudged it in a more upbeat direction. I mean…I don’t think I could’ve written something dark and depressing at that time, even if I had set out to do so. We all needed something positive. We still do!
Q: You found a perfect balance in the book between plot and characters. What was your process for writing this book? Do you write every day? Are you in a writing group? Do you outline or know the ending before you begin?
A: In the writing world, there’s this dichotomy between plotters and pantsers: The plotters do outlines, and the pantsers write by the seat of their pants. I would say I’m at least 95% pantser. And it’s not because I necessarily prefer it that way…it’s more that when I sit and try to fill out an outline or make notecards with plot points, nothing comes to me. Honestly, I envy writers who can do this. It sounds like a logical and efficient way to write a book. It’s just not how my brain wants to work.
For me, the characters drive the plot. When I’m early in drafting, I often put two or more of the characters together, throw something at them that is frustrating or stressful or exciting or…even mundane. Sometimes, the most mundane setups yield awesome results.
Q: I heard the book may be made into a film at some point. Are you or will you be involved at all?
A: I hope so! We’ve closed a deal for a film option, but of course, I can’t share any of the details. And it’s just an option at this point. Tons of books get optioned, and very few get produced. I have my fingers crossed, though!
Q: Are you working on something new yet, or is it too soon?
A: Yes, I’m working on another novel! It’s quite early so there’s not much to say about it. Second novels are notoriously difficult, I’ve heard, and thus far, that tracks. But I’m excited about the characters (one of whom is not quite human!) and I’m confident I’ll hit my stride with it eventually.
Q: What have you read lately that you recommend?
A: My favorite fall book, so far, has been Kevin Wilson’s NOW IS NOT THE TIME TO PANIC. It’s just so funny and heartwarming and the ultimate feel-good, root-for-the-misfits type of book. I love everything Kevin writes, and I adore his weird sense of humor, but this one totally brought the feels.
Jonathan Escoffery’s IF I SURVIVE YOU is a close second. It’s a narrative told through short stories, which isn’t always my thing, but this one has so much heart and humor that I couldn’t help but be sucked in. And it builds so beautifully as it progresses.
If you want a no-brainer for someone who loved Marcellus, I think Annie Hartnett’s UNLIKELY ANIMALS is perfect. It’s the story of a young woman who returns to her hometown after her father falls ill…but the town’s tea is spilled (aka, narrated) by a group of well-intentioned ghosts who inhabit the local graveyard.
Also, an amazing read…Jamie Ford’s THE MANY DAUGHTERS OF AFONG MOY. He somehow manages to braid historical fiction and near-future dystopia through the story of a family experiencing inherited trauma through the lens of epigenetics, highlighting the ripples of inherited trauma. That all sounds super scientific, but it’s Jamie Ford, so you know it’s going to be an easy, smooth read.