Gulf Stream’s Editor-in-Chief, Miguel Pichardo, sat down to talk craft, conspiracy, and staying versatile with Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, creators of the delightfully strange and insanely popular Welcome to Night Vale podcast. Set in the surreal desert town of Night Vale, the podcast is a local radio show where a silky-voiced host keeps listeners informed about the odd, yet commonplace goings-on throughout the community. Fink and Cranor have published a novel based on their cult hit and stopped by the Miami Book Fair International to promote its release.
Let me be the first to welcome you to Miami. Did you just get in?
CRANOR: Barely an hour ago (laughs, holds up his carry-on).
Let’s get right into it then. For the Night Vale podcast, you alternate in writing the scripts for each episode and edit each other’s work before sending it off to be performed and recorded. How was the collaborative process different when writing the novel as a pair?
FINK: We’ve been writing together for almost six years now and have developed this method. It works really well. We go off on our own, write stuff, exchange it, and talk about it. So with the novel, we thought differently about what we were writing. When writing a novel, you want to think about things like visual rhythm and sentence length in a way that you don’t when you’re writing something that’s designed to be heard or performed live on stage, which we also write. But the actual method by which we wrote the novel was fairly simple. We wrote chapters off separately, exchanged them, and talked about them.
You’ve built the town of Night Vale from nothing. No small feat, of course. Which works, if any, did you draw from to build Night Vale up to what it is today?
CRANOR: Our major influences when we started writing together, especially Night Vale, were less about world-building and more about language-building and the development of voice. There are two authors we go back to a lot. One is a novelist named Deb Olin Unferth, and this brilliant novel she wrote called Vacation. Another is a playwright named Will Eno. A lot of his plays are monologues. Both of them have this ability to structure a sentence and build a story in some places you don’t quite expect. So we started from the element of voice, like how the sound of the story would go. When we talked about the world we were going to build, the one thing we decided was that we could do whatever we wanted, really. Once the pilot episode was written and produced, we realized we could jump off in any direction as long as we had strict continuity.
Night Vale has existed as a fictional town since the pilot episode in 2012. When writing the novel, did having a fully-formed Night Vale, complete with its own culture and history, limit the process or make it easier?
FINK: It made it a lot easier. When staring at the blank Word document, we already had the language down and characters we already knew the histories of. The challenge was not rewriting what we’ve already written in the podcast. We didn’t want to use the same stories, just reference them for people who are familiar. We also wanted to write in a way that was brand new and fresh to them. That was the challenge. We do it often for our live shows, writing in a way that anyone who has no idea what the hell our podcast is can say, ‘Oh, it’s the same thing as the book.’
The podcast’s format is a community radio broadcast where the host is speaking directly to us, the ‘residents’ of Night Vale. The fourth wall is thin, if not at all present. Chapter Two of the novel starts with a great section where you have the reader imagine a house, a woman, and then a boy (See: sidebar). How did you decide when to break the fourth wall in the novel and what was the intended effect?
CRANOR: I think it’s a natural outgrowth of what we do. Part of that is coming out of New York theater, which is where we met and had been working before doing Night Vale. New York theater, especially Downtown experimental theater, does a lot of playing with audiences, pointing out the fact that we’re all in a room together. We always try to incorporate the audience. With the book, we were trying to bring in that same element of the narrator being aware that he’s narrating to someone.
So, the podcast is labeled as comedy on iTunes…
I’ve read that this is purely out of convenience. I mean, no single label captures the horror, satire, surrealism, or the poetry of the Night Vale podcast. That said, which genre would you attach to the Welcome to Night Vale novel?
FINK: Just fiction. It gets shelved with all sorts of things, which we don’t have any control over. The label we gave the publisher was just fiction. And if you want to put a label on it, Welcome to Night Vale is sort of ‘weird’ fiction. I think what we mean by weird fiction and what weird fiction actually means in a commercial marketplace are two different things. Weird fiction has this very narrow connotation. Whereas, I think it’s just a slight variation on magical realism.
CRANOR: We only ever wanted to write in a way that interests us. We wanted other people to like it of course, but have never been like, ‘This is our market’ or ‘We want to tap into the sci-fi/humor/fantasy market or YA readers.’
FINK: I think magical realism might be the closest.
Joseph, in interviews you’ve mentioned being somewhat of a conspiracy theory buff. I happen to be one myself. I was wondering which conspiracies, if any, have made their way into the Night Vale canon.
FINK: (laughs) As many as possible. The whole idea of Night Vale is that every conspiracy theory is true. So whenever I’m trying to figure out what to write next, I’ll often think of which conspiracy theories we have not touched yet. It’s sort of the built-in mythology of this little American desert town.
Although Night Vale began as a podcast, it’s branched out into other mediums like live performances, and now, the novel. How else would you want to present Night Vale to your fans before making the final transition, if ever, into a visual medium like film or TV?
FINK: That’s interesting. I also feel like film or TV is the ‘final transition.’
CRANOR: There is that pressure that film or TV is the ultimate form of everything and that the ultimate goal is to be offered a production deal. We’re really just interested in writing the podcast and in writing the books. That’s not to say that we’re not interested in other things. We’re just taking everything super slow, and always asking ourselves, ‘Can we make something we still have control over? Can we make something that’s still ours? And can we make something worthwhile that a fan of Night Vale will get something out of?’
I see. If you were ever to go into TV or film that would just add more cooks to spoil the pot.
CRANOR: Yeah. We’ve had a great time making the podcasts, and the live show, and even working with Harper-Perennial. They seemed to get what we do. It’s really nice to have a team of competent people we trust. Going into another field makes it a little tougher to say, ‘Here’s a whole other set of dozens and dozens of people, all of which we have to fully trust for this to work.’
It’s common for writers to switch between genres. How important would you say is it for writers to open themselves up to alternate mediums?
FINK: It can be very useful for developing skills. Not just writing, but reading. I find myself reading book reviews. It’s been forever since I’ve read poetry or a book on science. It’s important to read things you don’t usually read. The same goes for writing. If you’ve never written poetry, trying to write poetry in a serious way can really stretch your skills. Anytime you try and learn something different, that’s a way of developing new skills.