Shelby Van Pelt grew up in Tacoma, and as a child, she says, her favorite place was the aquarium at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. “I loved to go there,” she says, “hang out for long periods of time while I sat in the dark and looked at jellyfish. I liked that it was dark; it felt more personal than other parts of the zoo. You kind of felt like you were part of it instead of just looking at animals in an enclosure. It was more immersive.”
Today, Van Pelt lives in the Midwest, but her debut novel, “Remarkably Bright Creatures,” still has its heart in the old aquarium and Pacific Northwest landscape where Van Pelt grew up. It follows Tova, a 70-year-old widow living in the fictional town of Sowell Bay and working as a night janitor at the local aquarium, whose teenage son disappeared decades ago; a young man named Cameron who moves back after a series of setbacks to search for the father he never knew; and Marcellus, a curmudgeonly giant Pacific octopus who spends nights escaping his enclosure and grabbing snacks from other tanks. The novel tackles ideas of grief, friendship, home, letting go and the myriad meanings of love, with a little bit of mystery and a lot of humor thrown in.
The book is already a New York Times bestseller, and Van Pelt is scheduled for an in-person event at the Edmonds Bookshop on Saturday, June 25. She will read from the book and owner Michelle Bear will lead a low-tide beach walk to discover some of the local sea life in their natural habitat (octopus sighting possible but not guaranteed).
The Seattle Times spoke with Van Pelt over Zoom about what inspired the story. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What were the origins of this story?
Back in 2015, there was a video that went viral from the Seattle Aquarium where there was an octopus that was trying to get out of this tank. I was so entertained by that and it stuck in my mind. I went down the internet octopus rabbit hole, which is a fantastic place to be, and found out more about that octopus. They did some more features on that one specifically and other octopuses that had shown this determination to outsmart their human captors. I thought that would be a really fun character to write, and I started hearing the voice in my head that was very snarky and exasperated. A short time after that, I was in this writing class, the first writing class I’ve ever taken. The teacher gave us a writing exercise to write from an unusual point of view. And I thought, I’m gonna be that octopus and talk about how frustrated I am at these silly humans that are such an inferior species, and here I am the one that’s contained. That ended up becoming the first chapter of the book. Then I had to figure out the human characters, which were in some ways more difficult to get my arms around — I’ve only got two arms instead of eight — and figure out who they were. It started out being a story about an octopus, but really it’s a story about humans. The octopus gives us this lens with which we can look at ourselves with a bit more distance and a bit more clarity.
Can you talk about the element of grief in the book?
My favorite books are books that deal with heavy stuff but are also funny. So consciously or not, when I set out to write this book, I wanted to write that kind of book. For Tova, friendship and grief are interwoven. The grief she felt for her husband was a very straightforward type of grief that everyone goes through in their life because he was older when he died. But she has this bigger grief, which is really a grief of unknowns; of her son who had disappeared, and she never had any closure. She can’t move on from it, because she doesn’t know what happened. And part of what I think stops her from being able to know is this fact that she is so closed off and receded into her own life, and unwilling to fully participate in her community. It’s really when she starts doing that that the information starts coming out. When she opens herself up to new experiences of meeting new people and being a little bit more of a full participant in her social circle, she is kind of rewarded with some additional facts that in the end help her get some closure.
How did the pandemic affect these ideas of being stuck and of grief while you were writing, and how you balanced it with humor and lightheartedness?
I think it affected a lot, looking back on it now. There is a really interesting parallel between writing about characters that are stuck at a time when a lot of people I know were physically stuck, standing at our windows looking out on the world and feeling like we didn’t know when we were going to be able to go back out there again, if we were ever going to be able to go back out there again. I think the themes of stuckness probably intensified due to it being this very unique time in all of our lives. On the flip side, I feel like the other big thing that came out of writing a book during the pandemic is that it’s a really happy book. In spite of all these themes of grief and disconnection and being stuck, it’s a very joyful story at the end of the day. A lot of my short stories and other material that I’ve written are a bit darker. And so it kind of surprised me when I got to the end of this book and was like, “Oh, this is really heartwarming.” I think writing a book at that time could not have been anything other than this uplifting balm-for-the-soul type of story. Because I think I needed that, certainly I’ve heard from a lot of people that they felt like they needed that; people still feel like they need that. So those were two almost opposite influences that writing during COVID had on the story, but I think are both very clearly in there.
What would be your suggestion for a Puget Sound-area beach where people could read this book this summer?
Alki in Seattle is one of my favorite area beaches … I love it when you have the city lights and the water, I think that’s a really pretty view. But because I think that is maybe not the best beach for reading because it is so active, I will put in a plug for Owens Beach in Tacoma, my hometown, which is in the Point Defiance Park. It probably does get pretty crowded in the summer, but there’s beautiful nature. There’s a parking lot and a picnic shelter, but it’s a nice beach to just sit.