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Author Shelby Van Pelt.JAMIE KELTER DAVIS/The New York Times News Service

More than a decade ago, Shelby Van Pelt began to write about an octopus named Marcellus.

“I was playing with the idea of making something up, and putting it into words on a page,” says Van Pelt, who at this point was in her early 30s and working what she calls “a spreadsheet job” in an office. “I had always loved writing but never thought I was creative enough to be a fiction writer.”

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The result of this exercise was a character sketch of a caustic-witted cephalopod who, despite his towering superiority complex, immediately wraps his tentacles around the heart of any reader.

“He would agree with you that he is the most perfect, fully formed being on the planet,” Van Pelt jokes when told Marcellus is like one of those rare characters that feels like it sprang, like Venus, completely realized from the imaginative ether. “It really started with the voice, just snarkiness that popped to mind … this very dry, snobby type of tone.”

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Remarkably Bright Creatures, by Shelby Van Pelt.Handout

Of course, if you’ve been into a bookstore lately, glanced at a bestseller list or even had the hot-cocoa-like pleasure of reading it, you’ll know that what started with “a YouTube rabbit hole of octopuses behaving badly” eventually became Remarkably Bright Creatures, the story of an octopus living out the final days of his lifespan in an aquarium and the people whose lives he touches in unexpected ways.

It’s charming, life-affirming but not in the least soppy, and underpinned by a very satisfying mystery.

A proper publishing phenomenon – more than 1.5 million copies sold, seemingly permanent status on bestseller lists since it was published in 2022 – Van Pelt’s debut novel is a genuine crowd-pleaser, popular with septuagenarian book clubs and tweens alike. This broad appeal, more than the staggering sales figures, is what really pleases Van Pelt.

“When I think about being a bestseller, I try to think of it as, yes the book is selling, but it also means that people are reading it, and to me that’s the more important part,” she says from her home in the Chicago area. “There’s nothing that makes me feel better than hearing that this is a book that got someone back into reading or it was a book that someone gifted to someone who doesn’t read as much, but they thought they could handle it.”

Here, we chat to Van Pelt about taking a decade to write this novel, becoming a “Read with Jenna” pick for Today co-host Jenna Bush Hager’s book club, and how the pandemic shaped her work.

Did you have any references – a person in your life, a character you’ve loved – that formed part of a collage that influenced the character of Marcellus?

He’s a classic curmudgeon in some ways. I don’t know if you have this in your family, but my family has a few of these relatives – older guys, often an uncle, who just always have opinions on everything and want to share them with you. It’s this stream of consciousness observations that no one asked for. On the other hand, I did a lot of the drafting of this in the first months of COVID in 2020, and I was home all the time with my kids. My son had just turned 3, my daughter had just turned 5. I remember noticing the incessant questions that toddlers ask about why adults do the things they do, and why they just won’t rest until you give them a satisfactory answer. There’s a little bit of that in Marcellus too, that curiosity.

When did you know this story was working, that it was something you might want to put out into the world?

I had been picking at this for years, rewriting the first chapters over and over. In 2019, I remember being at a retreat with some of my critique partners, and there were a few of us who had been doing this same thing. We were sitting around drinking wine, and said we’d keep each other accountable, and actually do it. Once I started down that process, I saw that I could go beyond that third chapter and put something together that did work.

Was there anything that someone said that was a real motivator to keep going when you were bashing your head against the computer screen, or just meant a lot?

Very, very early on, when I wrote the first Marcellus scene, it came out of a class I was taking. It was a continuing education class, not any kind of a fancy thing. I had written this page and a half of an octopus introducing himself that eventually became the first pages of the book. The instructor told me that she really liked the character and she wanted to read more. It was a two-sentence compliment but I don’t know if I’d be sitting here right now, doing this, if she hadn’t said that.

Can you remember when you realized that it wasn’t just your writing pals who liked it?

I queried my novel in the late summer, early fall of 2020. It was the first time I had queried literary agents, and I really didn’t expect to hear anything back. It came as a surprise when, fairly shortly thereafter, I heard from one agent and she wanted to read the full manuscript, like, right now. I eventually sent it a few days later, and she wrote back five minutes later saying, “Let’s get on Zoom.” That was the first time I realized that someone was serious about jumping on this, and within a day or two I had the contract in front of me.

We haven’t even got to the ‘Read with Jenna’ of it all. How significant was that pick to be part of her book club?

There’s no denying that it absolutely moves the needle, especially for a debut author. You know that several thousand people are going to read this. There are people that just buy them automatically. Her community of readers is about the nicest place on the internet. It’s such a positive community who love books and want to talk and celebrate them.

Are you still working a day job?

I was a stay-at-home parent when this happened, and sometimes I feel like I am still wearing that hat. I think of myself as having a job now, but it’s a very flexible job that moves around the needs of the family.

Did the impulse to write come out of the circumstance of being a stay-at-home parent? Or would you have always written the book?

I like to think that I always would have explored it. One of things that drove me to do it was realizing that the office job that I had, which was really intense and taking up 60 hours of my week, was not doing anything for my soul. Even if I had chosen to stay in that job – which I probably would have, had I not been married to someone who had health insurance – I like to think that I would have become a writer. Although it would have been harder to cram it around an intense job. But, hey, being a stay-at-home parent is a pretty intense job!

Did that environment of being a stay-at-home shape this book in any way?

Yes, in combination with COVID. I remember having this moment in 2020, looking out my front window, and being like, “Am I in an aquarium?” Stuck inside of the house, no one was going anywhere. We were all circulating around in this environment, not really sure what we were doing. I feel like I identified more with Marcellus in that way.

And for me, this sounds a bit dramatic, but part of the reason that I felt so compelled to finish the book was that it was the first time in my life when I had a sense that a world might not go on as it was. I’d been writing this book for so many years, and I felt like I had to get it finished so that when the world burns, it can burn finished.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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