Remarkably Bright Creatures
by Shelby Van Pelt
I was drawn to Remarkably Bright Creatures by the engaging cover. When I learned that one of the characters was an octopus, I had to read on. I had seen the Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher and was fascinated by the intelligence and sensitivity of the strange-looking creatures. I was excited to see their potential played out fictionally on the page and Remarkably Bright Creatures didn’t disappoint. The story focused on Tova Sullivan, a grieving woman who works the night shift at the Sowell Bay Aquarium. She recently lost her husband and lives with the loss of her eighteen-year-old son, Erik, who mysteriously vanished on a boat in Puget Sound over thirty years ago. Tova forms a unique friendship with Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus living at the aquarium, which leads her to answers about the past and a new path to the future. Author Shelby Van Pelt discussed her journey in writing the book.
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a creative writer. Did you have a mentor who offered advice that has stayed with you that you can share with us?
VAN PELT: I don’t know that I’ve had a mentor, exactly, but I do have my amazing longtime critique partners and a wonderful writing group. In that group, there were several of us aspiring debut novelists who were querying our manuscripts at the same time, and I would’ve been lost without those folks. I had no idea what I was doing. We all sort of learned from one another.
AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. His job was to get the man off the mountain. Where did the idea for Remarkably Bright Creatures come from?
“I assumed that the octopus saw itself as the more intelligent species…”
VAN PELT: This is far less poetic than a lone figure on a mountaintop, but the idea for Marcellus the octopus came from an internet video. Someone had filmed a captive giant Pacific octopus repeatedly trying to escape its tank, and I just thought, wow, that would make a fun character to write. How frustrating it would be to be a highly intelligent creature kept captive, watching humans all day, bored out of its mind. I assumed that the octopus saw itself as the more intelligent species and would have a lot of opinions about human behavior. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was writing a story about humans.
My main human character, Tova, is loosely inspired by my late grandmother, with whom I was very close as a kid. Like Tova, she was a stoic Swede. She was always there with open arms and a plate of homemade cookies, but she also had this impenetrable shell around her. Everything was always “just fine,” and she never failed to keep herself busy with cleaning and chores, especially after my grandfather died. She lived out her days, sticking to her lifelong routines, in the house he’d built for them.
I never saw her shell crack. I think writing this story was perhaps a way for me to think about what life might have looked like for someone like my grandmother if an unexpected friendship (with an octopus or otherwise) had come along to shake things up.
AUTHORLINK: Having an Octopus be a point-of-view character is a bold choice. How did you work your way into Marcellus’s character?
VAN PELT: I sometimes joke that I must’ve been a cranky old man in a prior life because his voice came very naturally to me. Being “in character” was the easy part; much harder was figuring out where to draw the line with respect to the fantastical elements. Should Marcellus be able to talk? Write? How would be communicate with the human characters? How much physical hijinks could I get away with? It was a fine line to walk. At one point in a draft, I had the octopus operating a photocopier, and one of my critique partners was just like…no, too far.
AUTHORLINK: You did a fantastic job of taking disparate characters and entangling their lives in surprising ways. How did you track this for yourself as you developed the story – outline, index cards, something else?
“… most of the intersecting storylines came about through trial and error.”
VAN PELT: It surprised me too, sometimes! I am not much of an advance plotter, so most of the intersecting storylines came about through trial and error. Emphasis on the error; lots of dead ends, lots of course correction. Once I had a draft in place, I was able to put together a spreadsheet that summarized each chapter and used that while revising to tighten things up. And I did a lot of detail backfilling during that revising process, too.
Honestly, I would love to be an index card person. I see pictures of color-coded writing corkboards and I’m envious. It would be a much more efficient way to put together a book! But my brain doesn’t work that way. I almost never have good plot ideas. They only seem to come to me while I’m in the middle of writing the thing, and of course, that’s a little like trying to build a silo around a pile of grain. Messy and inefficient.
AUTHORLINK: How long did it take you to develop and shape Remarkably Bright Creatures?
” I can’t even tell you how many times I rewrote the first two chapters.”
VAN PELT: It took several years by one measure, and about nine months by another. I think it was 2014 when I got the idea, and I messed around with the first couple of chapters, on and off, for years. I can’t even tell you how many times I rewrote the first two chapters. I changed names and ages. I switched from present tense to past tense and back again. I was stuck on details, stymied by a quest for perfection in the small things.
Then, in late 2019, one of my writing friends was in the same position, with a manuscript she’d been messing around with for years. We made a pact to both finish, and traded pages every week, and once I had those deadlines and accountability, it was much easier to force myself to finally get to the end.
AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing Remarkably Bright Creatures and how did you overcome them?
“…my biggest hurdle was that I simply did not know how to write a novel.”
VAN PELT: This is going to sound ridiculous, but my biggest hurdle was that I simply did not know how to write a novel. Story elements like acts and arcs and beats…I just had no idea. Characters and voices came easily to me, but I had a lot to learn about structure. I’m forever grateful to my writing group for helping me to educate myself about that stuff. Reading craft books, such as Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody, helped a lot too.
The other big challenge was that I wrote most of the book during the early months of the pandemic, stuck at home with two young kids. They were bribed with snacks and Netflix. I logged late nights and drank too much coffee. In hindsight, I’m glad I had something to focus on besides, you know, impending doom and the collapse of civilization. And I have no doubt that writing during a dark time nudged RBC in a happy, heartwarming direction.
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about your revision process when working with your editor. What sort of changes did you make? Any tips on revision for apprentice writers?
“Getting your manuscript back with so many markups and redlines can be rough…”
VAN PELT: Getting your manuscript back with so many markups and redlines can be rough, psychologically. Even though my editor is one of the nicest and most wonderful people on earth, I still found myself feeling a bit defensive when I first received her edits. So, my first tip is to sit on it for a couple days, assuming you have time to do so. Open the document and read through it, then close it and let the feedback simmer. I remember that first read-through, looking at some of the suggestions and thinking “no way, no how, not changing that.” But a few days later, I realized that my editor had a good point.
My editor always left the final call up to me, but the reality is, at least in traditional publishing, once you sign the contract, your story is a product. What was once your word-baby is now a group project. I had to remind myself that my editor knows the market for my book, and we all want the book to sell. There are certain big things I would never compromise on for the sake of sales, but as I went through the redlines, I realized there were many smaller things that I was willing to let go.
One notable example was the use of the word “fuck.” It’s a word I enjoy, and I use it regularly in daily life. In the pre-edit version of RBC, there were thirty fucks. To me, that seemed perfectly fine. My editor strongly encouraged me to cut them down as much as possible, or even eliminate them entirely. So, I had this whole day where I went through every single fuck in the book and gave it a hard look and made lists of alternatives and annoyed my writing friends with incessant requests to weigh in on this problem.
Two or three survived that process, with the rest landing on the cutting room floor (aka my kitchen tile). And you know what? My editor was right. She understood the market. And honestly, the book is better for it.
AUTHORLINK: What advice would you offer to apprentice novelists?
VAN PELT: Find a writing community. Not only do you need those folks as beta readers and resources, but writing and publishing can be a tough, lonely pursuit and doing it with friends is much more fun.
Take a class. It doesn’t have to be anything lofty; many community colleges and libraries offer wonderful creative writing classes that are relatively inexpensive and open to anyone. I have met some of my longtime critique partners there. A notebook page I scrawled in response to a writing exercise (“write from an unexpected point of view”) at a continuing-ed course became the first pages of RBC. Take the class!
Read your manuscript aloud. You’ll find phrases that pose no hazard on the screen but trip you up when articulated. You might find yourself changing or omitting words almost unintentionally, and those small tweaks make the prose flow more smoothly.
Practice taking (and giving) critique and criticism. Beta swaps are a great way to hone those skills. It can be hard not to take negative feedback personally, but it does get easier. And when you’re querying agents, or when your novel is out there in the world and at the mercy of Amazon and Goodreads reviewers, it’s good to have a thick skin.
“Most of all, though, learn what works for you.”
Most of all, though, learn what works for you. There’s so much writing advice out there, the famous-writer memoirs, the how-to articles and hacks and “rules” about what makes up a successful writerly life. If writing every single day works for you, then do that, but if it stresses you out in an unproductive way, ignore that advice. Some people write in the same place every day, a habit enforced by routine…others do the opposite and coffee-shop-hop. I remember thinking there was something wrong with me because I just could not seize the crack-of-dawn hours as productive writing time, like everyone else seemed to be doing. But I am not a morning person. I am never going to be creative before the sun is up. Do what works for you.
AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.
VAN PELT: A second novel, I hope. I’ve often heard it said that an author’s sophomore novel will be the most challenging of their career and so far, I would say…yes, this is challenging. But I think some of that is attempting to come down from the wild ride that the last few months have been, having a debut novel that somehow landed me on the Today show and so many other incredible experiences that still do not feel like my actual life. Going from pandemic-era sweatpants to book appearances and live television is quite a leap, so I’m trying to give myself some grace if focusing on writing has been difficult lately.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: I do try to always write somewhat regularly, though, even if progress on the novel lags. I love flash fiction, and often will bang out a fragment of something when the mood strikes. Contests are great for forcing inspiration. One of my favorites is the NYC Midnight competitions, which dole out random (and often utterly bizarre) prompt combinations for stories ranging from 100 to 2500 words on a tight deadline. It’s like, write a romantic comedy featuring a table saw and a popsicle, you’ve got a thousand words and forty-eight hours…go! It’s exhilarating, and I’ve written some of my favorite pieces, some of which ultimately turn into longer projects, from weird prompts that initially had me banging my head on the desk.