Q&A With Shelby Van Pelt

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Q&A With Shelby Van Pelt 

Today I am doing a Q&A with Shelby Van Pelt, the New York Times Bestselling author of her debut novel “Remarkably Bright Creatures”. I can’t wait to read it. This week I’m going to the library so I am going to pick it up if I see it. 

Q: How did you come up with your novel? Your novel has a unique and wonderful premise. 

A: The idea of a snarky octopus came to me after seeing a video on the internet of a giant Pacific octopus trying to escape its tank – right there, in broad daylight, with tons of people around. This was a few years ago, when I was just starting to write fiction, and I thought, wow, that octopus must be so frustrated with its human “captors.” What a fun character that would make.

Then, a few months later, I was taking a creative writing class (my first ever!) through the continuing education department at a local university, and we were assigned this exercise to write from an unexpected point of view. My mind went to that octopus. The paragraphs I scrawled out in that classroom eventually became the first chapter of RBC.

Q: Which scenes in “Remarkably Bright Creatures,” did you have the most fun writing? Which scenes were more challenging to write? 

A: Marcellus was the most entertaining to write, no question. He has opinions about everything, and his voice is so much fun. Sometimes, I think of him as a quirkier, more lighthearted version of that curmudgeonly uncle so many people have: and old guy who’s full of hot takes and will rant about them to anyone who will listen.

I can’t think of a particular scene that stands out as challenging, but overall, managing the timeline made me want to pull my hair out. I’m sure my editor was exasperated with me by the end, as well. I kept tinkering, moving things around, and throwing off the day count. I don’t think I’ll ever write another novel built around a format of specific days or dates! Dealing with that level of detail is not my greatest strength.

Q: What advice do you have for anyone wanting to become a writer? 

A: Find a writing community. I think there’s this image of writers as solitary creatures, introverts banging on a laptop, alone. And there’s some truth to that. Sure, I need time and space to get a draft down. But the whole process of getting beta readers, revising (and revising, and revising again), crafting a query letter or pitch, going through the submission process…having a solid group of writer friends makes the whole thing so much easier (and more fun).

One of my favorite places to find writer-friends is classes and workshops. I’m a huge fan of continuing education classes and library writing groups; anyone can sign up, the cost is usually reasonable, and you meet a wonderful array of folks from various backgrounds and experiences. I also love participating in writing competitions (especially flash fiction). Sometimes, these come with a forum or Facebook group where you can connect with other participants and share/critique stories. I’ve found some of my most valued critique partners through contests!

Q: I know your book was a pick for Jenna’s Book Club. What was it like meeting Jenna Bush Hager? Jenna seems like such a sweetheart. 

A: She absolutely is! She and Hoda were both so warm and kind during my live appearance on the Today Show. I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know where to look. There were, like, a hundred cameras (okay, not that many, but a lot!) and at least once, Jenna discreetly helped point me toward the appropriate one. 

After the TV part was over (whew), I had a blast chatting with Jenna on Instagram Live. Nerves were gone and it felt like talking to an old friend; she was so genuine and funny. After we were done with the IG stream, she stayed in the green room with me and my agent and publicist and we all gabbed about books for a while, even though I’m sure she’s crazy busy. Really, she’s book nerd at heart, just like the rest of us! 

Q: Does Hollywood have the rights to your novel yet? 

A: Sort of! We’re in the process of doing option rights. As for what that means, tangibly…I guess time will tell. As soon as I’m able share news, I will!

Q: What advice do you have for anyone struggling with writers block, or lack of inspiration? 

A: First, I’d say: join the club. We all have those days (weeks? months?) where it feels like you’re writing and deleting the same sentence repeatedly. Or where staring at a blank page feels like looking up a mountain, and you’re sitting at the bottom with no climbing gear. 

Or my personal favorite: when you’ve poured effort into crafting a piece/scene that you’re sure is brilliant. Then you read it the next day and cringe. 

Blocks have many sources, in my experience. 

Sometimes, it’s a fear that the writing isn’t polished enough. You feel like you can’t continue until you get this section right, even if it means spending literal years writing your first chapter (ask me how I know). It’s hard, but I always remind myself that nothing will never be perfect, especially not a draft, and move along.

Sometimes, you know what you want to happen, but right now, you can’t seem to assemble the words. When this happens, I put a placeholder. (Then, months later, I’ll wonder my cryptic note meant, but some space from the original problem is always helpful to figure it out.)

Sometimes, you don’t know what you want to happen. Or perhaps, it’s what needs to happen. Do you have an outline, even a rough one? Or a vision of how you want the story to end? Can that shed some light on what you’re working toward? Try writing the scene that you want to happen 50 or 100 pages from now. Write the ending. Worry about the in-between later.

Sometimes, you think you know what you want to happen, but you’re wrong. My longtime critique partner and I call these red flag scenes. It’s a section that either (a) keeps falling flat, no matter how many times you rework it or (b) a scene that you perpetually avoid writing. Here’s a hard truth I learned: if you hate writing it, readers probably won’t want to read it. When there’s something your story vision or outline that makes scenes unappealing to work on, ask yourself whether it might be a problem with the plot itself.  

Sometimes, you simply don’t know what to write about. This is totally me. I rarely have “good ideas.” (Once in a blue moon, perhaps, after watching an octopus video!) Prompts are a great tool here; a good prompt book or prompted contest can spark inspiration. 

Q: What were your favorite novels you read so far this year? 

A: 2022 has been a fantastic year for books!  One of my favorites has been Unlikely Animals by Annie Hartnett. Like RBC, its narration is quirky, wise, and well…not-quite-human. I loved the tender-yet-humorous treatment of heavy topics like addiction and end-of-life care, and I laughed out loud so many times while also planning my next vacation as a ghost-spotting trip in a New England cemetery. Highly recommended! 

Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley is another one of this year’s novels that has stuck with me. It’s a young Black woman’s account of life on the streets and the writing is just…stunning. I don’t like to scribble in hardcovers, but I will buy this one again in paperback, when it’s available, and re-read with a highlighter and a pen, marking the gorgeous passages that I want to savor again and again.

Another recent release that I’d recommend to almost anyone is The Measure by Nikki Erlick. It’s like a philosophy/ethics book in the shape of a novel, but in the best possible way. I loved the diverse characters, all of whom face the same anguished choice of whether to learn their foretold fate, and all of whom must deal with the resulting realignment of society. A thought-provoking story that’s perfect for a book club.

Q: Are you writing a new novel now? If so can you spoil a little bit about what it’s about? 

A: I’m trying to write one! See my detailed responses to the question above about writer’s block. It’s often said that an author’s sophomore novel is their hardest, and I guess maybe I’m feeling that right now? I should probably try to take my own advice.

From what I’ve got so far, here’s my vague spoiler: It’s not a sequel or related book, although it does have a central character who is (perhaps) not human. The setting and plot are quite different from RBC, though.