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Celebrating Their Corpse-Strewn Future: Welcome to Night Vale

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cover imageI am generally not particularly inclined to seek out interviews, but discovering Welcome to Night Vale has been one of the clear cultural highlights of my year.  Unfortunately, one of the things that made me so instantly obsessed with it is that it is so warped and unique that effectively describing it poses a bit of a challenge, particularly if one is trying to avoid using the term "Lovecraftian."  My best attempt is this: a blackly funny podcast that tells the story of a singularly cursed desert town though a series of chipper community radio broadcasts by an unflappable announcer named Cecil.  Of course, "singularly cursed" seems hopelessly inadequate for a place where wheat (or wheat by-products) can abruptly turn into venomous snakes or malevolent spirits, but I am unable to avoid working within the English language's maddening limitations.

 

This interview took place in May 2013 via email with the show's two writers, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor.  Joseph is also the founder of Commonplace Books, the publishing imprint behind Night Vale.

How long have you two known each other and what did you initially bond over?  When did the idea for Night Vale start to gestate?

Joseph: We've known each other since 2009, when Jeffrey did a performance art piece in which he discussed burning a book while displaying its ashes.  I approached him after the show to tell him that I thought his piece was morally wrong.

Jeffrey: To be fair, it was a terrible book.

Joseph: We then bonded over fairly similar viewpoints on the world (White, male, nerdy. The most unique and interesting viewpoint.) and a shared passion for writing.  I'd been a fan of Jeffrey's writing long before I started working with him, and it's great to work with someone whose writing I would be following even if I didn't know him personally.

In 2011, we wrote and performed a play together in NYC called What the Time Traveler Will Tell Us (pictured below).  Writing with Jeffrey was remarkably easy, considering that I've never found it that pleasant to co-write with anyone before.  So I wanted to work with him again.  At the same time, I had become a huge fan of podcasts and wanted to make one myself, but didn't want it to sound anything like any of the podcasts I was already listening to.  This all came together with my long-standing obsession with (and love for) conspiracy theories, which I don't believe, yet constantly read about.  I came up with the idea of a little desert town where all conspiracy theories are true, and over the next few months I put together a script.

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I made the first episode (with the help of Cecil [voice], who was a friend of mine, and Jon [music], who I'd known online for years) as just a proof of concept.  Then I showed it to Jeffrey to see if he wanted to start making them with me, and he did.  We later released the test episode I made (unedited) as the first episode of the series, which is why the first episode, to my ears, sounds a little sloppy when compared to the later ones.

Jeffrey: It's interesting to hear Cecil's voice in episode 1 after hearing all of the other episodes.  He's so neutral, which was really perfect, I think, for the pilot episode.  But I'm so thrilled with the way Cecil has developed his character (with surprisingly little direction from Joseph or me) over the past year.

I agree completely with you about Cecil's character.  I always love his increasingly frequent departures from his carefully modulated "radio voice," particularly his sassier ones.

I think I'd be remiss here if I did not make a momentary digression to ask if you two have any favorite conspiracy theories.  Do you?  I'm personally quite fond of the one where Hitler and other key Nazi party members escaped into the hollow earth through the secret entrance in Antarctica.

Joseph: Number stations aren't a conspiracy so much as an actual weird thing which exists, but I love them.  I have a plan for a Night Vale episode involving them, but I'm still working stuff out with a possible guest artist, so I can't say anything more except that I hope it can happen and it will probably be my new favorite episode if it does.

I also really love all that "ancient aliens built all the ancient buildings" stuff.  It's so absurd, but at the same time, it's a fascinating narrative.  And I love the way proponents take ancient drawings and start circling all the stuff they think is aliens.  But, really, any conspiracy theory that gives me that strange feeling in the pit of my stomach. You know that feeling.  It's a feeling that has nothing to do with believing the theory.  It's raw instinct and awe.

Jeffrey: Yes, anything with the pit-of-the-stomach "oh man, what if?" moment is a great conspiracy theory.  I would add that anything that has a blurry figure in the background of an old photo (ghost, 2nd shooter, alien, etc.) wins my heart and my terror.  I read Annie Jacobsen's Area 51 last year and she has a phenomenal theory about what the UFO and strange bodies at Roswell were all about.  It involves Nazis and spy planes and genetically modified children.  It's horrible and compelling.

How does the response the show has gotten match up with your original expectations for the project?  Did you ever expect to be performing it live?

Jeffrey: It doesn't!  It doesn't match up at all.  There are so many podcasts, and so many good podcasts at that.  We thought that after a year we would have a listenership of 50 friends and a handful of their friends.  But more and more people download each episode, and we continue to get really kind feedback from people in the form of emails, tweets, fan fiction blogs, story ideas & submissions, fan art, t-shirt designs, and even a role-playing game.

Joseph: I have spent the last few months in an unbelieving stupor, waiting for someone to explain to me that none of this is actually happening.

Jeffrey: From early on, we had some ambitions to do live shows.  Live shows are a staple of many podcasts, and given that Commonplace Books has already produced a handful of other live events (book readings and such with multiple performers), it made sense to do a live Night Vale at some point.

It seems like everything to emerge from Commonplace Books has been a community effort of sorts, even Night Vale (particularly the "Poetry Week" episode).  Is that a conscious philosophical decision, a cunning strategy to surround yourselves with interesting or inspiring people, or simply a very pragmatic way to handle ambitious projects?  A mixture of all three?  Has influence from collaborators ever directly or indirectly caused a major shift in direction?

Joseph: Commonplace Books has never had any particular strategy, as it is basically just me trying stuff out.  It began with the Lovecraft book, which I did as a kind of writing game for people I knew.  Then I realized (after I had already started) that what I was making was a book.  My father ran an independent publishing company for years (Bad Wolf Press), so I had some idea of the kind of work involved, but that's about as far as my experience went.

To answer your question more specifically, it's definitely a mixture of the three.  I find working with other creative people to be a blast, as they come up with ways of approaching a subject that I would never have come to on my own.  And with the collapse of traditional media gateways, now is the time for artists to band together, work together, and help each other out, which is what I've been trying to do with Commonplace Books from the start.  And, pragmatically, there's no way I could have gotten any of the projects we've put out done without tremendous help from a ton of smart and talented people.

As for influence from collaborators causing a major shift in direction: no, but that's just because I rarely have a specific direction to start with.  I'd rather start with a general concept and let the collaborators steer where we go with it the entire time.

Jeffrey: The "Poetry Week" episode was an exciting and difficult episode, as I realized while editing it that there are people in this world that write differently not only from me, but from each other!  My original intent was for a handful of short, strange, funny poems Cecil would read in the context of some other storyline.  But people sent in such complex and wonderful writing that I had to find a way to weave a whole story around it all.  The result was one of the strangest (and probably most sprawling) episodes, but it introduced a lot of new language and new ideas to our universe.  And we're always trying to find ways to do something a little different than before.

Yes, "Poetry Week" as a whole was perhaps not quite as tight as some of the other episodes, but I think its first ten minutes feels like a highlight reel.  If someone can make it through "slow-moving children get in free," "we're taking 20% off of EVERYTHING," and "TOURISM IS IMPORTANT," without getting hooked on the show, I have to assume that there is probably something deeply wrong with them.

Jeffrey: There was a NY theater critic - I think it was John Lahr - who, in his review of Tony Kushner's play Angels in America, Part II, referred to the show as far messier, but much more interesting than the original.  I have always appreciated artistic messes.  For Night Vale, I try to avoid that, because it is a collaborative show and not my own personal artsy vanity project.  But I do appreciate that those other jokes (for lack of a better word) read.  Thank you.

This is somewhat unrelated, but I am too curious not to ask: I looked up Bad Wolf Press and now I am somewhat concerned that you (Joseph) probably spent an inordinate amount of time exposed to elementary school musicals and cheery songs about rainforests and earthworms during your formative years.  Is that accurate?  If so, do you think that may have played some role in steering you towards darkness and horror?

Joseph: No, no, Bad Wolf Press is nothing like that.  The whole philosophy of my dad and his friend/co-writer John was to write plays that were understandable by children, but never talked down to them.  Their plays had genuinely funny jokes and clever wordplay, and a definite undercurrent of darkness.  I would, in fact, say that the sense of humor I was exposed to in my family growing up is one of the biggest influences on Night Vale's sense of humor.  If anyone reading this works with children, I wholeheartedly recommend checking out Bad Wolf's stuff.

It's kind of a huge regret for me, actually.  Or maybe not a regret, because there's nothing I could have done differently, but maybe just a sad irony.  My dad, being himself a working artist, was always a huge supporter of my writing career, albeit an extremely realistic one ("This seems like a cool project. What's your marketing plan?").  But while he respected my writing, I don't think he actually personally liked much of what I wrote.  It just wasn't the kind of stuff he himself was interested in.

He died a couple years ago, and now I have this thing, Welcome to Night Vale, that I think would be right up his alley.  Night Vale is the first thing I've produced that I think he would have enjoyed and been a fan of, rather than just respected and supported. And he's not around to hear it, which kills me.  But then, maybe without all the life stuff that got me here, I wouldn't have been able to create Night Vale as it is now.  I don't know.  Life is difficult to understand and I'm not going to be the one to figure it out in an interview for a website.

Jeffrey: I never met Joseph's father, but I can see the strong influence of children's theater/storytelling on Night Vale.  There's something very moral about Night Vale (the town).  They are not our morals, but there's a sincerity to the people there.  The lesson is: life is hard, but you have a community that will protect you, because that's what a community does.  This community will also ask difficult things of you, but that is the cost of living in a society.

How does the writing of a typical episode take shape?  Is it a collaboration from the beginning or do you each tend to bring your own partially formed episodes to the table?  Do you have a larger narrative arc planned or is the story taking shape on an episode-by-episode basis?

Jeffrey: We alternate writing episodes.  So I'll write an episode and then hand it off to Joseph to edit.  He'll usually correct my continuity errors and add some new jokes, clearer language, or ideas for different secondary stories.  Vice versa for Joseph's episodes.  And we'll have a back-and-forth editing session via email and Google Docs. Once we both sign-off, we send it to Cecil and he records it, and Joseph then produces the final audio.  I press "upload" on the 1st and 15th.

We don't have a story-pitching process between us.  We speak in person often enough that we usually know the story the other is working on, anyway.  Plus, we trust each other's judgment well enough to run free with each episode.

Joseph: I think there's only one big reveal that we actually planned out far in advance (I don't know when this interview is going up, but it's a plot point in episode 25 that we have been sitting on since last August.).  Mostly we're on the same wavelength and are pretty good at picking up on where the other is going with a character or story, then taking that ball and running with it.  Or some other sports metaphor for writing.

Jeffrey: There are several larger narrative arcs throughout the podcast (the civilization below lane 5 of the bowling alley, intern Dana in the Dog Park, Hiram McDaniels' push to become mayor, etc.).  These stories develop as we get to them, but there's no schedule or map.  The show itself has no overarching narrative.  That is to say, we have no end date.  That is to say we (Joseph and I and you and everyone) have an End Date, but not the show.  There's no central conflict we want to resolve and then wrap up the whole show.  We want to keep making it as long as we have both physical capacity and relevance.

What's the most amusing description of Night Vale that you've heard so far?

Joseph: I've heard many, many variations on  ______ meets _______, with one of those blanks being NPR or Prairie Home Companion or something similar, and the other usually being Lovecraft, Stephen King, or The Twilight Zone.  Those all seem pretty fair to me, if maybe a little reductive.

I guess the only weird descriptions that I've heard are from Texans, who seem to have a statewide tendency to assume that Night Vale takes place in Texas despite no evidence that it takes place anywhere but "somewhere in the Southwestern United States."  I don't remember the exact wording, but we've gotten a few "a podcast about a small town in Texas" descriptions that always confuse me a little.

Jeffrey: One online review of our podcast called us a parody of Lake Woebegone Days, which is weird, because we're not a parody of anything.  We didn't choose the community radio motif because we're trying to undermine small town radio; on the contrary, I grew up listening to community radio shows, and my writing for the podcast is informed heavily by my love of the genre.  Also, and more importantly, Lake Woebegone Days is a novel, not a radio show.

Have either of you ever lived in the Southwest?  If not, it must be very difficult to maintain the degree of verisimillitude you've achieved.

Jeffrey: Joseph's from Southern California.  He grew up near the desert, and I think the landscape and mood of Nevada and Arizona really come through in the show.  I think that's the area that most informs the mental "look" of Night Vale.  I grew up in a small suburb near Dallas called Mesquite.  Landscape-wise, it's nothing like Night Vale. But I spent quite a bit of time driving in a pick-up to somewhere in the country in the dark and staring at the stars (which I don't get here in Brooklyn).  So when I write an episode, I think of Old Mesquite (an older, more working-class neighborhood) and of the giant radio tower for the community radio station (KEOM 88.5fm - look it up.  It's enormous) where a few of my high school friends worked as student deejays.

I also grew up a radio junkie.  I listened to talk radio (or sometimes easy listening) every night from about age 12 until college.  I listened to Coast to Coast FM when I could receive it. Top 40 pop stations.  Even religious broadcasts.  The all-sports station didn't start in Dallas until after I graduated high school.  I phoned in to contests regularly and called talk show hosts to ask questions that I really had no interest in.  I just wanted to hear myself on the radio.

Joseph: I definitely grew up within a couple hours drive of the desert, but the main milieu of my childhood was Southern California suburbia, which is its own kind of whitebread weird, and definitely one that has had a major impact on the show.  I would say the town of Night Vale has a distinctive "planned suburbia" feel that gives it a lot of its sense of place.  There's no old village square like you would find in a New England small town, and no big single industry that the town is built around, like you might find in the Midwest or parts of the South.  It's a Southwestern commuter suburb with no place for anyone to commute to.

I think it is vital that we discuss HP Lovecraft now.

One of the reasons I love him so much is that I find his writing to be singularly evocative & unnerving as well as unintentionally hilarious.  Welcome to Night Vale seems to be gleefully Lovecraftian in both senses (though your humor is presumably intentional), which makes me think that you probably view his work similarly.  Is that accurate or am I irrationally projecting?

Joseph: This is going to put off some of our fans, but I actually hate Lovecraft, both personally and for his writing.  I don't think anyone can deny that he was a shitty person.  His whole "cosmic horror" thing mainly came out of his intense racism.  And I think that, on a prose level, he was also a deeply shitty writer.  I mean his stuff his almost unreadable for me.

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That said, I think he was brilliant on an idea level, and that's definitely where we connect with him.  Our Lovecraft book, for me, is a way of leaving behind all vestiges of his writing, including the stupid names of his gods, while keeping the brilliance of his unnerving ideas and images.

Night Vale is often called Lovecraftian, but we never consciously chose to make it that way. I just think Lovecraft, awful writer that he was, has had such an impact on modern horror and science fiction that it's impossible to work in that field without using some of the ideas he generated.  Which kind of annoys me, but I respect the old racist bastard all the same.

Jeffrey: Neither Joseph nor I have ever named our pet a racial epithet.

Well, you're missing out on one of the best parts of pet ownership then.  Otherwise, I generally agree with everything you two just said.

My relationship with Lovecraft is a complex one, as normally bad writing coupled with virulent racism would be a deal-breaker for me, but it is weirdly endearing coming from a nervous, over-mothered, reclusive eccentric.  To make an analogy: a few weeks ago, I saw a homeless man wearing a black-silk kimono (with a dragon on it) happily feeding squirrels in the park.  Then he abruptly turned around and angrily called a pigeon a "faggot."  My reaction, rather than any sort of moral discomfort, was mostly just "Ha- of course that guy said that!"

I feel the exact same way about Lovecraft.

Anyway, my dubious assessment of Night Vale as "Lovecraftian" goes a bit deeper than the standard "an ancient, nameless horror is lurking somewhere" theme, which is why I was so curious about his imagined influence.  I guess the aspects of his work that I was specifically wondering about were his comically florid descriptions of things and the ridiculous implausibility of some of his plot developments.  For example, some of the ads for your "sponsors" seem like they could be a snarky twist on his overwriting.  Also, his tendency to end stories with someone frantically writing in their diary right up until the moment they are killed ("Nooooooooooo!") seems like it could have been an indirect influence in your exaggeration of horror to such a degree that it actually becomes funny.  I am sure that I am imagining the last part though.

Jeffrey: Stephen King wrote some nice things in his book Danse Macabre about Lovecraft's influence on horror.  That's where I found out about Lovecraft's writing.  I spent a lot of time trying to like it, but beyond the immense amount of Cthulhu fan art (some of which is genuinely terrifying and good), I had a lot of difficulty.  There is one central event in a lot of his writing, though, that sticks with me.  That is the idea that you could see something so profoundly scary or other-worldly that it would make you insane.  I think of the angels at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark or the idea that to see the face of God would kill you.  Or that video tape from The Ring.

I also find Dracula unreadable, but both Stoker and Lovecraft developed a new kind of monster, and I tip my (blood-soaked) hat to that.

Joseph: I tend to find faux-Lovecraftian purple prose to be pretty teeth-grating and an unimaginative way of parodying his work. There are exceptions though. This winner of a Commonplace Books writing contest from a few years ago works because it dives so deeply into Lovecraft's clunky style that it somehow comes out the other side and finds the absurd beauty in it.  In any case, I don't think that's what either of us is doing with Night Vale.

I would say a lot of our poetic passages come, as uncool as this is going to sound, from a place of sincerity.  I think words sound interesting, and I like putting them together in interesting ways, and if I can find a way to do that on Night Vale, I'm not super worried about whether it works as comedy or not.  I think "snarky" is not a tone either of us are going for with the show.

A lot of that comes from the point of view of Cecil as well.  His character is pure sincerity and emotion, so writing sarcastically for that voice would feel very off.  Which is good, because in forcing us to write with sincerity, it removes the crutch of being able to say "Oh, we didn't mean that. That was a joke" if someone doesn't like something we wrote.  I think people write better if they have the courage to mean it, without irony and sarcasm, and to stand behind it whatever the result may be.

What are your favorite episodes so far?  Is there anything you look back on and think "Wow- I can't believe we thought of that"?

I myself am a huge fan of some of the twists in the "Europe" episode, but I am also quite fond of your tendency to imbue very mundane places with occult menace (ie. post offices, dog parks, bowling alleys, etc.).

Jeffrey: I still love episodes 13 ("A Story About You") and 19 A&B ("The Sandstorm") because they're so unusual, compared to our normal approach.  Hearing the pleasant guitar riff start 19B along with the voice of Kevin cheerily welcoming listeners to Desert Bluffs never gets old to me.  Episode 13, which Joseph wrote entirely, is so vivid and poetic and compelling in its 2nd person POV.  It's a perfect short story for the radio, which says a lot about Cecil, too, because he brings such life to some really rich material.  Individual story-wise, I'm still partial to the traffic report from Ep 20 ("Poetry Week") and the concluding passage of Ep 15 ("Street Cleaning Day").

Joseph: I also love episodes 13 and 19 A&B, mainly because of the sheer amount of effort we brought to them, effort that I feel paid off.  For "The Sandstorm," for instance, Jeffrey single-handedly wrote 50 minutes of material, which was not only a great story, but played with the podcast format in an innovative way.  Then I spent hours writing and recording a soundtrack for part B, as well as creating a number of sound effects and, of course, doing a fairly lengthy guest voice recording session with the amazing Kevin R. Free.  It's incredibly gratifying for the two of us to put that much work into an episode, then listen to it and think: "Yeah, that was worth it.  This is really good stuff."

As for an episode in our more usual format, I think episode 5 ("The Shape in Grove Park") was the episode where we hit our stride.  You can hear Cecil really start to make the character his own, and it features my favorite stand-alone bit we've done so far, a bit written by Jeffrey about tarantulas.  Oh man.  Go back and listen.  It's such a well-constructed paragraph.

"A Story About You" is easily one of my favorite episodes as well.  I was especially struck by how "unfunny" it was.  It was so bizarre to experience a genuinely tense, weirdly gripping diversion like that within the Night Vale universe.  I think its existence gives the surrounding series more weight.

Also, yes, the opening to the second half of "Sand Storm" was brilliantly wrong-footing, especially since it initially seemed like Desert Bluffs was a totally pleasant (if insipid) community that was completely oblivious to their tense adversarial relationship with Night Vale.

Final question!  What sorts of things do you have upcoming?  I am especially curious about the Night Vale book.

Joseph: We have a whole number of cool things coming up. It's an exciting and exhaustingly busy time for us.  This is going to be a long answer as a result, sorry.

So first we have some live stuff coming up in NYC:

On June 11, at Webster Hall, we're doing a one year anniversary party, featuring comedy, music, and a live performance of our big anniversary episode a few days before it is released online.  Here's a Facebook event page for that.  People should come, it should be a lot of fun.

There's no specific dates yet, but in the fall we are planning our first actual live episode, recorded in front of a live audience with special guest voices and a secret musical guest star for The Weather.  We're trying to go all out for that one, so it'll either be really cool or it'll kill us.  We'll see.

Also there's the possibility of doing something live with our friend across the pond, the talented Tom Milsom, sometime during the summer.  No promises, but it's definitely on the table.

The book we're putting together is a Night Vale companion guide (Volume 1. If it goes well, I think there's definitely the possibility of more).  It will feature scripts with extensive behind-the-scenes annotations, new Night Vale short stories by a number of writers, and a ton of original Night Vale visual art.  That hopefully will be out this fall, with our live episode doubling as its release party.

Plus, of course, we still have the podcast, which will continue to have new episodes, and which we will continue to try new stuff with.  We have a number of strange ideas for episodes that I'm very much looking forward to doing, and we're going to continue pushing to see what can be done within the podcast format.

Also, Jeffrey has something non-Night Vale happening in NYC soon, so this is me reminding him to talk about it here.  Jeffrey, go!

Jeffrey: I'm directing a performance piece called VULTURE-WALLY at Incubator Arts Project here in NYC (May 31-June 9!).  It's based very loosely on an old Austrian serial novel of the same name, but we're deconstructing/reconstructing it's themes of identity and free will and feminity through dance, poetry, relaxation tapes, sing-alongs, and social dance.  That sort of thing.  It's cool.  Definitely my time spent writing Night Vale and hanging around weird Twitter (or whatever we're calling or not calling it these days) has really informed my writing and how I construct stories.  It's fun to see some of the strange and dark Night Vale thoughts bleed into my other work.

(Note- I should mention here that Night Vale's Twitter feed is almost as essential as the show.  I recognize that describing someone as "funny on Twitter" may sound like dubious praise, but their stream of twisted advice, horoscopes, aphorisms, and snappy one-liners ("Make like a tree and sit quietly as insects colonize your insides.") is legitimately wonderful in its own right.)

Do you have any final wisdom to impart?

Jeffrey: I'll say this: Night Vale doesn't pay at all. Maybe it will some day, but it's already been way more rewarding than I expected it would be.  Night Vale's been exactly the sort of thing I've been wanting to write for a long time.  I just didn't know it.  I will probably want to write more things some times and less things other times, but getting to write for a show you really like and to hear that other people also like it is a real blessing.

Joseph: I'll agree with that.  Getting messages from people saying "Hey, I like this. This meant something to me." is one of the most amazing feelings in the world.  And Night Vale is just a joy to put together, even when it's difficult or stressful.

Finally, I'll say this: I think right now is the best time in history to be an artist of any kind. It's not the easiest time.  It's not the most lucrative time.  But it's the best time. You can do any kind of art you want without filters and distribute it to anywhere in the world in seconds.

So find someone you enjoy working with.  Find something you enjoy working on.  Treat each other with respect.  And see if something cool happens.  It might.

 

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Last Updated on Monday, 27 May 2013 21:16  


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