Since 2012, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor have built the world of Night Vale episode by episode, letting listeners in on daily life in the surreal desert town through biweekly broadcasts of their wildly popular podcast Welcome to Night Vale.
Narrated by Cecil Palmer, the local community radio host voiced by actor Cecil Baldwin, Welcome to Night Vale combines the dream logic and small town charm of Twin Peaks with the haunting desert setting of Area 51. Charming, hypnotic, and above all addictive, Welcome to Night Vale‘s tone is an extremely specific mix of the fantastic and the hilariously banal (sample tweet: “Do not take Alyrria™ if you are engulfed in flames. Alyrria™ may cause ‘the Event.’ Ask your doctor to translate the cipher.”). And as of Tuesday, Night Vale is the setting for not just a podcast, but a full-fledged novel.
The story of a single mother struggling to connect with her shapeshifting son and a perpetually 19-year-old pawnshop owner who can’t get rid of a mysterious piece of paper — we weren’t kidding about the “dream logic” part — Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel breaks with the community radio format while retaining a distinctively Night Vale feel. To find out how they did it, we spoke with Fink and Cranor about the book-writing process, the advantages of a new format, and introducing real-world concepts like diversity to a universe where public libraries are death traps.
First off, I have a sort of strange request. Night Vale is hard to describe — it’s easier to just get immersed in the weirdness over the course of a few episodes, or in this case, the book. But for readers who’ve never heard it, how would you describe this world you’ve created in a sentence?
Jeffrey Cranor: That’s not a weird request at all! You’re asking us to describe the show. It’s a fictional, scripted podcast that takes the form of community radio from a weird desert town where every conspiracy theory is true.
Given how successful the podcast is, I’m sure you were approached by publishers about a book. Had the idea of expanding Night Vale’s perspective beyond Cecil’s occurred to you before then, or did you hit on the idea after you’d decided to write a book?
JC: I think it always occurs to us. Before the book, we put the podcast into a live show, and while the live show is ostensibly structured like the podcast and Cecil is the main narrator, when you change the medium, you have to change how the story is told with the energy of the audience you’re using.
The idea of exploring things outside of Cecil’s voice was something of interest to us always, and exploring things with a different type of language was interested. We started early on; I think the first time we played with form on the podcast was episode thirteen, which was “A Story About You.” It was a story told through Cecil’s voice, but entirely in second person, narrating the story of you, the listener. Then in episode nineteen, we did a double episode where we had Cecil telling a story about a sandstorm coming to town. Simultaneously, we released another episode of the same sandstorm hitting the rival town of Desert Bluffs, and we have a new character, Kevin, who is their radio host narrating what’s happening there.
It’s interesting to get new perspective, and once we realized we could pitch a novel and somebody might want to actually print it, we knew we could tell it from a narrator’s point of view rather than Cecil’s point of view—a novelist’s point of view. Get into the heads of characters, go into buildings we can’t normally go into, walk around town in a way we normally can’t.
Was there anything besides leaving Cecil’s perspective you knew you wanted to accomplish with a Night Vale book, as opposed to an episode of the podcast or a live show?
Joseph Fink: I think we wanted to approach it in a way of writing a novel. That’s stating the obvious, but you write differently with each medium. It’s a story we’ve been telling for quite a while; we really did want to write a complete and satisfying novel that worked as its own book, even if you picked it up not aware that it was based on anything at all.
I wanted to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of the novel format. Let’s start with disadvantages: were there any challenges or difficulties in translating Night Vale? Was it hard to switch modes of storytelling, or were you excited to break out into something new?
JC: I think we were just excited to have this brand new, newly shaped canvas on which to create something.
JF: It was ultimately not that difficult. I say that meaning like, it’s difficult to write a book, but it wasn’t difficult in a particularly different way than writing the podcast. Honestly, the only thing that was noticeably a challenge was bringing it all to a close. With the podcast, we can keep things open and keep things moving and keep having things lead to other things. With the novel, we really wanted to have everything come together in a satisfying way that feels like the end, even if the world still exists. Figuring out how to do that is the one major thing we had to learn.
What about the advantages?
JC: I would say that one thing is just having more room to get into characters’ heads. With Cecil telling the podcast, you are always limited to his point of view. Even when there are other voices on the show sometimes, it’s through Cecil allowing them onto the air, usually. So you do have this limited viewpoint of how life in Night Vale is. It was nice to take the characters of Diane and Jackie and say, “Well, what is it like to be a single mother in Night Vale? What is it like to be this perpetual 19-year-old pawnshop owner?,” and really go into their worlds. It’s a thing that we are limited from doing in the podcast. Going inside buildings we don’t normally go into was another one.
Yeah, the library scene was just great. The book is pretty accessible to new readers, but you also have scenes like the library that let readers in on something that’s been alluded to for a long time. How did you balance the desire to pull in new readers by making the novel accessible for non-podcast listeners and the desire to include easter eggs for longtime fans?
JF: We’ve had a lot of experience, because we do the same thing with our live shows. They’re designed to be a nice treat for fans who really listen and can pick up on subtle, fun things that other people wouldn’t, but at the same time we want people to be able to walk into a live show knowing nothing about who we are and have a really enjoyable evening and understand the story. So we approached the novel in the same way, in that the basic story, the characters, everything is self-contained, everything you need to know to enjoy the story is in there—but there’s still, throughout, little references or side characters or new revelations about characters that will mean a lot to people who have really put the time in with the show, and that somebody who’s never heard of the show will probably not even notice is there.
Was it difficult to balance those elements at all, or did it just happen organically?
JC: It feels pretty organic at this point. It’s mostly within the world of the characters, right? I feel like the town, you can just kind of say whatever, because it’s set up that this is weird. But if a character has a backstory, you just have to think quickly about how much of that backstory do I need to explain right now if nobody knew it. Even when we’re writing the podcast, even though it’s a serial, I still think about that. Because I do know people join midway through, or on the most recent episode, so for me, it’s mostly thinking about: Does that person have a story line that is vitally important to what’s happening right now to someone who was totally new, and how quickly can I set that up?
Part of the reason Night Vale’s achieved such cult appeal is because of its diversity, which seems almost effortlessly baked in. Cecil is in a relationship with a man, Diane is described as mixed race, and of course, both protagonists of the novel are women, and that’s something a lot of fans enjoy and appreciate. Was diversity something you had in mind when creating the world of Night Vale?
JF: It happened organically. I think you have to be either intentionally leaving people out or, what I think is far more common, just super lazy to not have diversity. If you look at the world, the world is a diverse place. So if you as a writer, or the producer of a show — if you are trying to reflect the world as it is at all, that is a diverse world. It really does take, I think, conscious effort to not have diversity, to decide to leave that out of your writing, to leave all of those people out of your writing. And that’s something we obviously don’t want to do.
Diversity is something we’re very aware of, especially on the side of casting people and things like that, but in terms of writing, from the start it just kind of grew organically out of us trying to write honestly about the way the world actually is.
It always struck me because while Night Vale isn’t exactly science fiction or exactly fantasy, a lot of these subcultures tend to have a lot of issues with diversity — look at the blowup around this year’s Hugo Awards. I always wondered if you consciously saw yourselves as a counterpoint to that, but I guess it happens naturally.
JC: It does, but we also read up on it and think about it and talk to people who are concerned with these issues, too. Dylan Marron, who plays Carlos in the audiobook and in the podcast, he had a project this year that blew up for him on YouTube called “Every Single Word Spoken By a Person of Color.” It’s a really great project; he did a great job of making it concise and easy to digest and understandable in these really short videos—actually shockingly short videos.
None of that is new to us, but it’s the type of stuff you want to think about and be aware of so you are aware of what thinking and talking about. The Hugo Awards story is another good example. Yeah, hey, let’s just be aware this is a thing going on in the world. It’s exciting that people love our show for having a gay character normalized at the center of the story, and an interracial couple at that, but it’s simultaneously kind of disappointing that we’re seen as being so rare in that light. We also want to keep up with that dialogue that’s happening right now, too.
WTNV isn’t “funny” in a joke-centered, ha-ha way, but humor is definitely a significant part of its tone. To what extent do you aim to be funny when you’re writing, or did you happen on that aspect of Night Vale organically?
JF: I don’t know, I don’t usually think that consciously about it. I really never think of writing in terms of “Here’s where I’m trying to reach, here’s the goal I have for this.” It all just grows out of I’ll have an idea, and then I’ll follow that idea. We’ll let an episode be an entirely dark, or we’ll let an episode be entirely funny. There is sort of a balance that happens, but that balance happens organically.
JC: I would agree with that. It’s kind of like tasting your food while you’re cooking it; you want to have a sense of if this whole thing is gonna taste right. Sometimes, you just can’t resist. You see a joke there, and you put it in because it’s a good joke—you’re like, “I can’t just not put this here because this is great.” Sometimes you may want to trim that down a little bit because it maybe feels a little overwhelming, but you get a sense from doing enough writing of what feels like a good balance.
And that brings me to my final question! I’ve always been really curious how the co-writing process works. Was it different collaborating on a full-length novel rather than half-hour episodes of the podcast?
JC: More that it just took a lot longer! But it was really similar, actually. The main difference was that when we started to write the novel, we had these two characters we both had been thinking about for a long time and wanting to write for between Diane and Jackie. So before the novel, we sat down and wrote out stories, separately, of these two characters, just to get it rolling. Then we brought them to each other, and then started working to interweave them and say yeah, I see a story forming there.
We developed a pitch, we sold the novel based off of this proposal, and then we said great, let’s have an outline, and we wrote the outline together. Once we had the outline established, then you have chapter by chapter, a short description of what happened in the chapter. Then we could assign those and say, you do these chapters, I’ll do these, here’s our deadline, let’s get back together and then swap them out and edit with each other. Which is not dissimilar to the podcast, where we alternate episodes. I finish an episode, I send it to Joseph, he edits it, and sends it back. We do that until it’s ready to go to Cecil.