Interview: Shelby Van Pelt, Bestselling Author of Remarkably Beautiful Creatures

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Marcellus the Octopus is the perfect mascot for World Octopus Day! Smarter than the humans around him, a nightly escape artist from his aquarium tank, and a most lovable curmudgeon, this unique character floats up from the pages of Shelby Van Pelt’s debut novel, “Remarkably Bright Creatures“, a 2022 instant New York Times bestseller and “Read with Jenna Today Show Book Club” pick.

The novel tells a heart-warming story about relationships, most notably a friendship between an octopus and an older woman, Tova. Along the way we encounter a whole host of quirky, engaging characters plus a mystery to be solved that kept us turning the pages until the end.

Shelby came up with the idea of this first novel while completing an exercise for a writing class, and it was published by Ecco/HarperCollins (US) and Bloomsbury (UK) in the Spring of 2022. She has had an affinity for sea creatures since childhood when she lived in the Pacific Northwest; her favorite place to visit was the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma. 

We visited with Shelby to find out more about her and her book and ended up getting an earful directly from Marcellus who gave us his own irascible opinion of World Octopus Day! 

What inspired you to create a book featuring an octopus named Marcellus as the main character?

Originally, the idea came from an internet video. A fitting origin story for Marcellus in our digital age!

This was a few years back, and there was this viral clip going around with a captive giant Pacific octopus trying to slip over the edge of its enclosure. I remember thinking, wow, that octopus would make a fun character. And then I was in a fiction class a bit later—the first one I’d ever taken, actually—and the instructor gave us an exercise to write from an unexpected point of view. So, I jotted down a “journal entry” from the perspective of a grumpy captive octopus, and that vignette eventually became the first chapter of Remarkably Bright Creatures.

Oct. 8th is World Octopus Day! What do you think is most important for people to know about the octopus? What would surprise us to know?

Happy World Octopus Day! I thought it might be fun to ask Marcellus for his thoughts, and here is what he said:

Allow me to offer my sincerest gratitude: you have dedicated zero-point-two percent of your human calendar to octopuses. To be revered in such a manner puts us on par with “National Carrot Cake Day” (a designation which must beg the question: why would anyone create a confection from an undesirable cruciferous root? One that is so often discarded from lunch boxes?) or “International Talk Like a Pirate Day” (make it stop, please. Or at least impose some decorum upon your young field-trippers. I tire of swashbuckling outside my tank.)

As far as what humans ought to know about my superior species: the list is long. We are nothing like you humans. We traveled a different evolutionary path. Our brains are decentralized, distributed among our arms, to the point where our arms have different…. well, personalities, as you might say. We change our color and texture according to mood and setting. We smell and taste with every one of our thousands of suckers, which makes your gustatory experience seem pitiable by comparison. You humans fawn over your fancy chocolates. Imagine if you could taste them with your entire epidermis.

We indulge our curiosities, we dream while we sleep, we engage in play for stimulation and sport. We feel pain, and we hold grudges.

In some ways, perhaps, humans and octopus are not so dissimilar.

“World Octopus Day.” I suppose it is better than nothing.

That’s Marcellus. He can be a bit salty. However, he’s not wrong. Octopuses are remarkably bright creatures, and they deserve to be treated as such.

Unfortunately, octopuses aren’t always protected by the same regulations and conventions that shield primates and other intelligent animals from inhumane conditions in research and industry. One easy way to help is to voice support for measures that seek to ban octopus farming, such as STOP Octopus Farming (drove.com).

(Marcellus says thank you!)

What kind of research did you need to do to create him to be so believable?

At first, I did most of my research online. We all know the internet is ruled by cats, but octopuses are catching up! Google anything related to octopuses, and you’ll find yourself tumbling down a delightfully weird rabbit hole.

I was partway through writing my manuscript when I came across the nonfiction book Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery, who is a fantastic nature and science journalist. She chronicles her encounters with captive octopuses in aquariums, and it’s a phenomenally engaging read. Her depictions helped me refine Marcellus as a character.

Beyond that, I sort of plowed through with drafting, and then would take sections to friends with marine biology experience and ask them to tell me where I’d gone too far. Those friends also put me in touch with some wonderful folks who work in octopus rescue, who patiently answered my cephalopod questions…of which there were many, and some of them were ridiculous. (Could an octopus operate a copy machine? No? Okay, then…back to the drawing board.)

What was it like to write from Marcellus’ superior perspective and portray the humans around him as a species with a lot of fallibility?

Writing a character who judges humans with impunity was so much fun! But along with Marcellus’s holier-than-thou attitude, I also hoped to depict him as grudgingly curious. On that front, I gleaned a lot of inspiration from my kids. My youngest was a toddler at the time, and he’d constantly raise (very valid) questions about why people act so weird sometimes, like, why do we use words in nonsensical ways? Our social niceties, our little white lies, our senseless metaphors. Kids are great at cutting through the crap. I tried to infuse Marcellus with that sort of unflinching wonder.

The other characters were so relatable and engaging. Were they based on people in your life?

For Remarkably Bright Creatures, I borrowed more directly from my own family and culture. The main human character, Tova, has a lot in common with my late grandmother. Both were stoic Swedes, petite-yet-tough women who drank loads of coffee and could not abide idle time. My grandma was always in motion, cleaning and choring and keeping busy, taking on projects because “it’s something to do.” Like Tova, she hated the thought of burdening anyone. When I began creating a human character to befriend Marcellus, someone like my grandma seemed like a perfect place to start.

How did you come to write this first novel? What in your background led you to this?

Writing a novel was never on my radar until I was well into adulthood. I graduated college with an interdisciplinary liberal-arts major that included both economics and philosophy. I also graduated with a lump of student-loan debt that nudged me toward an office job that involved a lot of spreadsheets. I liked the work and was reasonably good at it, but it wasn’t lost on me that while most of my colleagues excelled at building data models, I thrived at drafting the narrative reports that accompanied them.

After I eventually burned out on long, unpredictable hours and frequent travel, I left that industry. While working some odd jobs and freelancing, I decided to enroll in that writing class mentioned above. It was relatively inexpensive and non-committal: a continuing-education class, zero-credit, the sort of thing anyone can sign up for. But it changed my life!

What are you working on for your next book?

Right now, I’m mired in early-manuscript muck: I have an idea and a cast of characters and have written several scenes, but I’m not totally sure where the plot is going. With Remarkably Bright Creatures, I flew by the seat of my pants (I’m a “pantser,” as we writers say, as opposed to a plotter). With this next book, I’m confident the story will somehow come together once I get deep enough into it. Whatever shape the plot takes, I’m sure it will have an element of weirdness, and right now it seems likely that there will be at least one non-human character. Stay tuned, I guess!

Shelby currently lives in the Chicago area with her husband and two children and misses the mountains! You can follow her on Instagram at @shelbyvanpeltwrites. You can order her book from Amazon or Harper Collins. For a signed copy from a local bookstore, you can go to Anderson’s Bookshop

Author photo by Karen Forsythe. Book cover design by Vivian Rowe. Book jacket by Ecco.

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