Dreamer | Yawn Meets Shelby Van Pelt
We were thrilled to interview author Shelby Van Pelt as our June Dreamer.
Shelby’s debut novel Remarkably Bright Creatures launched in the UK on May 26th and was featured as part of The Book Club selection on BBC Radio 2. Told in part from the perspective of an octopus (if that doesn’t spark your curiosity, I don’t know what will), the novel is a heart-warming exploration of loss, connection, and family.
Hi Shelby - congratulations on your debut novel! Remarkably Bright Creatures is such a wonderfully comforting read – can you introduce it to Yawn’s readers?
Thanks very much! And yes, the book is sporadically narrated by a cranky old octopus who has lived in captivity, on display in a small-town aquarium, since he was a juvenile. Marcellus, as he’s named, firmly believes he is the superior species, and has much to say about humans and their habits. But when he befriends Tova, the seventy-something widow who mops the aquarium after hours, both characters begin to understand the value of friendship, however unexpected.
The plot of the novel is very unique, where did your inspiration come from?
The characters came to me first, and then I sort of shaped the plot around them. I came up with Marcellus after seeing a video of a giant Pacific octopus attempting to escape its enclosure. I could sense the creature’s frustration, and just thought, wow, there’s a character in there. A fun, snarky, character.
Tova is loosely based on my late grandmother, who was this tiny-yet-tough Swedish woman. She was incredibly kind and warm, yet also had this unbreakable stoicism to her, an emotional barrier. We were very close, but I never really saw her shell crack. Everything was always “just fine.” I suppose, in creating the Tova character, I was exploring what might have been simmering under the surface with someone like my grandmother.
All the characters suffer from faulty connections with others, and with being “stuck” in these boxes of who they think they are, what they believe their future must hold. From there, I asked myself, what exactly is each one searching for? How do they think their lives would improve if they found it? And - most importantly – why are they wrong? From there, the plot sort of wove itself together!
Where and how does your best writing happen?
I have a theory about writers who have young children. You’re either a morning writer, or a night writer. I’m a night writer!
I did a lot drafting of this book during the first months of the pandemic, with my toddler and kindergartner home, and while it was possible to make some progress during the way (with earbuds shoved in and Cheerio bits whizzing by), in order to really get into the groove, I needed a few consecutive hours of unimpeded writing time. For me, that could only happen at night, after the kids were in bed. Something about not having an endpoint looming - well, the next day’s sunrise, I suppose, but I only saw that a couple of times!
How do you relax and unwind after a day of writing?
Wine, honestly. I do also love herbal tea, especially in the winter. But in the summer, I’m all about a glass of white wine on the patio.
As my kids have grown a bit older (they’re now aged six and eight), I have also come to love reading to them at their bedtime. Not that I didn’t enjoy it when they were littler, but there’s something special about reading aloud books that made an impression on me when I was a young reader, like The Westing Game and The Secret Garden and Matilda. Of course, we mix it up with more modern stuff too, but sharing those classics with them is a ritual I’ve come to cherish. I always leave their bedroom feeling a little lighter!
Top book on your reading list?
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus! I’d heard great things when it released earlier this spring, but in preparing for my interview with the BBC Radio2 Book Club last week, I listened a recording of Bonnie’s clip from April, and it propelled her book to the absolute top of my list! A brilliant female chemist, who should’ve had a stellar academic career but for the misogyny of the 1960s, who channels her science smarts into a hit cooking show? Yes, please!
Favourite song to relax to?
Oh, impossible question! I love emotive, guitar-strummy stuff, so that’s my go-to when I need to escape into music for a bit. I’m obsessed with The Head and the Heart (their cover of “Don’t Dream it’s Over” is…well, dreamy). And Band of Horses. And Brandi Carlisle. Going back to my high school and college days, I still love to kick back to mellow Pearl Jam tracks like “Yellow Ledbetter” and “Ghost” by the Indigo Girls.
“You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” by the Beatles will always spark an instant serotonin release. It was one of the first songs I learned to play on the guitar, when I was a kid, and probably the only song that I could still pick up and play today.
Night cap or night cream?
Well, this might be my American-ness showing but…I must understand. Is a “night cap” a beverage, or a sleeping hat? If it’s a beverage, sign me up. Having one last drink at the hotel bar, with your heels dangling from your fingertips, is the perfect way to end a fancy night out.
But night cream is also indispensable. Parenthood and pandemic and getting older…yikes on my skin. A while back, I realized I was not happy with how “tired” I always looked, so while I used to be super breezy about skin care, I’m now dedicated to a simple nightly routine of Cetaphil face wash + Kiehl’s eye cream and hydrating oil right before bed. And a sheer sunscreen every day – I love SuperGoop’s Unseen Sunscreen. They’re easy changes to my routine that make a noticeable difference!