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A widow's unlikely friendship with a giant Pacific octopus

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Heartache, loss and how friendship can help us get through that kind of pain. They are the themes at the center of a new novel. Its focus is on one particularly endearing friendship between Marcellus and Tova. Marcellus is an octopus who lives in captivity in a small town aquarium on Washington's Puget Sound. Tova is a grieving 70-year-old who works the night shift, cleaning the aquarium. The book is called "Remarkably Bright Creatures." And its author, Shelby Van Pelt, joins us. Welcome, Shelby.

SHELBY VAN PELT: Hello. Thank you for having me.

FLORIDO: Thanks for joining us. Marcellus - he's this octopus, but he's a real curmudgeon stemming from his life in captivity. And yet he's charming. He's really funny. And we should note that he's not a talking octopus to the humans in your book. He's just an octopus in a fish tank. But you take us into his mind. Why?

VAN PELT: Well, I think it really started for me watching octopus videos on the internet, which is a wonderful way to pass the time if you've never gone down that particular rabbit hole. You know, watching them, they're trying to escape. They get into all sorts of antics because they're just bored. And for me, watching those, I just really felt like there was a character in there, the frustration that an animal must feel when it almost must feel kind of superior to the beings that have captured it.

Octopuses are incredibly intelligent. I think we don't quite know the limits of how intelligent they are or could be because it's just such a different type of intelligence from what we, you know, as humans and mammals, are used to. And so I think that's where the curmudgeonly-ness (ph) really started for me. It's just, you know, it's kind of just a funny premise, but like, gosh, that guy must be so grumpy if he's trapped in there.

FLORIDO: And he's sort of watching these humans outside of the - you know, on the other side of the fish tank, sort of bumbling around. And he's sitting there, scheming.

VAN PELT: He really does believe that he is the superior species. And he has endless amounts of time to watch the humans. And he has a very sharp observational capacity. And I think he relieves a lot of his boredom by sort of, you know, creating these little soap opera moments and just really honing his observations and his thoughts about humans and how we operate.

FLORIDO: Well one of the humans he observes is Tova, who's 70 years old. She just lost her husband to cancer. But more importantly, she lives, you know, with the unsettled grief of her teenaged son's disappearance at sea 30 years ago. And because of that, she's really stoic. She's emotionally inscrutable, as you describe her. And yet she seems open to Marcellus, in part because maybe she sees his sadness.

VAN PELT: I think so. I think that she sees how they are similar. Tova has a very difficult time being open and honest with the humans in her life, but she has no problem talking to the fish at the aquarium. You know, that's why she likes that job. She relates to animals really better than humans. And, you know, I think Marcellus is kind of stuck in his box literally.

FLORIDO: Yeah.

VAN PELT: And Tova is stuck in hers metaphorically. She has no surviving heirs. She's approaching a time in her life when she's going to need help. And she's really honestly horrified at the thought of having to ask for that help from her community and from her friends. So she just sees herself kind of stuck in this box. And I think in befriending Marcellus, they both kind of help each other get out of that mindset of, you know, this sort of fatalistic, well, this is how it's going to be. This is how it's always been.

FLORIDO: It struck me that Marcellus isn't the only one in captivity here. You know, Tova lives in a small town, and yet everyone is always up in her business, wanting to know what's going on with her. So she seems to understand him on that level, too.

VAN PELT: Absolutely. Yeah. The - you know, the whole town, the fictional town of Sowell Bay, is really like an aquarium in and of itself. I introduced the character of the gossiping grocer. It was so much fun to write because he's the opposite of Tova. He wants to be in everyone's business. He's well-intentioned. But, you know, he's just that - you know, I feel like every small town has that character. I think for me, too, writing a lot of this book during COVID and during the early days of COVID, when we were really kind of locked down and spending way more time in our house, it felt like I was in a box, too.

FLORIDO: We all did. Yeah.

VAN PELT: And yeah. So it was really interesting to write these kind of trapped storylines, whether it's the octopus or Tova in the town or some of the other characters who are really just trapped by their own misconceptions of themselves, during a time when, you know, we spent a lot of time just looking out the front window, thinking, wow, where do we go from here?

FLORIDO: You know, Tova has a group of friends who really care about her, and yet she doesn't open up to them. She decides to sort of let an octopus be the creature that cracks her heart shell.

VAN PELT: You know, Tova gets in her own way there. You know, she's an imperfect character. She does have a group of friends that care about her a lot. But she almost won't let them because she's got this - you know, this kind of shell around her, this stoic nature, this, you know, can-do...

FLORIDO: She's a Swede.

VAN PELT: She is. Yes. And, you know, my grandmother was Swedish, was very much like Tova. The character is sort of based on my late grandmother in many ways. And, you know, I watched her have a similar path to Tova in some ways toward the end of her life. My grandfather passed away, and she lived alone. And she just kept on keeping on, cleaning all the time, you know, ironing the linens, just doing her thing. And I always kind of wondered, like, gosh, is she happy? Like, does this actually make her happy? You know, when she was alive, I kind of wish that I had been able to see her shell crack open a little bit more, and, you know, I never did. So I think writing a character like Tova was really exploring that for me.

FLORIDO: A lot of Tova's grief comes from not knowing what happened to her 18-year-old son. Marcellus finds a way to sort of help her through that.

VAN PELT: You know, I think the moment when she actually starts talking to him, she acknowledges to herself, hey; this is ridiculous. I'm doing the very thing that I have always been kind of judgmental about. And...

FLORIDO: I'm talking to an octopus.

VAN PELT: Exactly, you know?

FLORIDO: He's not talking back.

VAN PELT: He's not talking back. But he kind of is. I mean, he is in a way that's good enough for her to keep going.

FLORIDO: This is your first novel, but you've been writing...

VAN PELT: Yes.

FLORIDO: ...For a long time. How did writing during the pandemic change your writing?

VAN PELT: Writing for me during that time, a very, you know, dark time, was - it was a joy. It was a balm almost. And I think that's part of the reason why "Remarkably Bright Creatures" turned out to be such a happy novel. I mean, it's funny. A lot of my short stories are darker, and they're not necessarily this heartwarming vibe that I think comes through in the book.

FLORIDO: Yeah.

VAN PELT: But it couldn't have been anything else at that time. I mean, it just - writing it during, you know, 2020, it had to be a happy story.

FLORIDO: Shelby Van Pelt. Her new book - her first book - is called "Remarkably Bright Creatures." Thanks for taking the time to speak with us.

VAN PELT: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAPHNI'S "LIFE'S WHAT YOU MAKE IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.