Sometimes, complex writing work is fueled, at least in part, by reality TV. Debut novelist Crissy Van Meter confides, “I can’t read while I’m working…so I end up watching a lot of TV. Housewives, Kardashians, any reality TV.” Read Van Meter’s emotionally dense debut novel, Creatures  (Algonquin, Jan. 7), and you’ll be richly rewarded, but you’ll also understand the desire to occasionally retreat from the deeply felt world Van Meter creates as you dive headlong into the life of Evangeline, a young woman raised in the fictional tourist town of Winter Island, California.

We meet Evangeline—called Evie—on the eve of her marriage as she deals with a trio of bridal nightmares: a dead, putrid, beached whale that has washed ashore at her wedding venue; a groom who may be lost at sea; and a mother of the bride who has shown up uninvited. We then travel backward in time to revisit the chaos of Evie’s early life, spent with a father too consumed by substance abuse to keep a steady roof over their heads. We also jump forward a decade into her marriage and see her struggle to strike a balance between her feelings of betrayal and unflinching love for her spouse as well as her best friend, Rook, and parents living and dead.

“I told myself I didn’t want to write a novel about grief,” says Van Meter. “I lost my dad, and I thought it would be really cheesy.” However, the result was not only cathartic for Van Meter, but a novel that provides fresh perspective on the ebb and flow of grieving. She says, “I was really thinking about grief and was annoyed that the way I kept reading about grief was so linear. Sure, we have the five stages, but sometimes they happen all at once, sometimes it happens in waves. I grew up on the beach and reading tide charts, and I was thinking about this really basic idea of tides...that’s so similar to my own experience of grief.”

The resulting narrative isn’t chronological, but it is cohesive. Part of that cohesion comes from the isolated island setting, an element of the novel that is very personal to Van Meter, who spent much of her childhood in Newport Beach—a peninsula—with her waterman father. Of the city, she notes, “There’s one way in and one way out. There’s no parking, there’s a thousand tourists, you’re stuck there....The metaphor of being trapped by their lives and relationships came so naturally to me.”

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Van Meter has been a journalist, editor, and teacher for a decade, but as she readies for the publication of her debut novel, she is somewhat reluctant to call herself a novelist. When asked if there’s one piece of advice she gives her students and embraces herself, she first laughs and then notes, “All artists are so different....One thing I [do], and that I encourage all my students to do, is I read everything aloud….One, to hear the dialogue, but two, you slow down and have to go word by word and sound by sound. I’m lucky my novel is pretty short.”

True, Creatures is relatively short, but there’s power in its brevity. For Van Meter, it is art underpinned by—but not explicitly reflective of—her own experiences, which has her feeling both excited and a bit trepidatious. Van Meter is keenly aware that readers want to know which elements or characters in any novel are “real” or “true,” saying, “I feel really vulnerable because it’s emotionally true and because people who know my life will recognize that. But I have to resolve that the book is no longer mine—I made it and it’s in the world now. However people want to read it…that’s up to them.”

When asked what she hopes readers will take away from the novel, she notes two things. “I hope people really think about the structure as a feeling and really think about life not being linear, [and] I wonder if other people who grew up with alcoholic parents will be able to relate to loving someone who wasn’t always a good person.” Those hopes are well realized in Van Meter’s arresting debut.

Tayla Burney is a writer in Washington, D.C., and curates a weekly newsletter of literary events in the region.