An interview with Jeffrey Cranor & Joseph Fink
“Weird at last! Weird at last! God Almighty, weird at last! Welcome to Night Vale.” – episode 9, “Pyramid”
It all started innocently enough. It was neither a dark nor a stormy night, and I was not called out by some unknown dark forces. Well, I did started hearing about it because of Tumblr, so maybe that qualifies?
Back in the summer of 2013, I started seeing posts on my Tumblr dashboard for a new podcast called Welcome to Night Vale. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been a listener of podcasts since 2008, and have been a fan of audio drama since I was a child. The posts indicated the podcast to be dark yet funny. Originally described to me as Prairie Home Companion meets Stephen King, and being a fan of both of those, I was understandably intrigued. It also seemed to be posted by the same people who liked The Thrilling Adventure Hour, which sealed the deal to give it a try. And my Tumblr witnessed my progression from, “What the hell am I listening to?” to “I f’in love this podcast” in 16 short episodes.
Written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, Cranor (who also created it) describes the premise of Welcome to Night Vale as “community radio from a small desert town where things like ghosts and angels and aliens are all commonplace parts of day-to-day life.” It’s got a Lovecraftian sensibility, whereby dark and mysterious things keep happening to everyday, ordinary events (never have I been so terrified of street cleaners).
Fink, however, doesn’t like the comparisons to H.P. Lovecraft. “I wouldn’t describe myself as a long-time fan of Lovecraft,” he says. “I think, in general, he is a terrible writer as well as having a been a terrible human being. I mean, I definitely see the comparisons, I’m not going to say the comparisons are wrong, because I think Lovecraft was just so influential to horror that you can’t really work in that area without working with some of the ideas he introduced to it. But personally, I think he was bad at the English language.”
At the time, there was a list going around the Internet of the unused ideas of the classic horror writer, and Fink had used that as a jumping off point to get a series of stories he ended up publishing in A Commonplace Book of the Weird. This ended up inspiring the concept of Night Vale.
Confused? At a loss for what to do? Wow, sounds like you're human. Good luck.
— Night Vale podcast (@NightValeRadio) June 14, 2013
But why a podcast rather than another book? “It started out as just the idea of I wanted to do a podcast with Jeffrey,” Fink says. The two had collaborated on a play before, and so already had experience writing together. “I wanted it to be different than every other podcast I was listening to. I’ve always loved conspiracy theories – I think they’re fascinating. So, where the idea of Night Vale really came from is just the idea of a town where every conspiracy theory is true, and it’s not a big deal and we just move on with life from there.”
Cranor continues the story. “We both feel like Welcome to Night Vale has a strong literary background in its style and where it comes from as we write it. And so it just felt natural to include it as part of Commonplace.”
Cecil Baldwin, who narrates the podcast (and is pretty much the only voice you hear, outside of the very rare occasional guest voice), became involved with the podcast because he was in the same theatre company as Cranor. “He did a short performance a while back about the fact that he has this great narrator voice,” says Fink, “but has in his entire life never really gotten much in the way of voiceover work. And so I saw that performance, and I thought, ‘Okay, sure. I’ll give you work.’ When I wrote the script, it seemed natural to approach him and ask if he wanted to narrate it.”
The podcast comes out twice a month, and the two work together on the overall storylines. “Our writing style has been pretty consistent,” Cranor says, “although, it’s had slight evolution over the last year and a half. But for the most part, when we think about like bigger picture storyline things, we’ll usually e-mail back and forth or meet in person to talk those things through, and then we both go off and write our own thing.”
In terms of how fast they are able to get the scripts written, Cranor says, “Each episode kind of depends on what we’re doing. There are a couple of times where both Joseph and I have said that we’ve written an episode like in a short afternoon, like almost as long as it takes to type 2,500 words: the episode just sort of comes out of you. And some of them we have to kind of write and put aside for a while and come back to.”
After the episode is written, the two edit it back and forth, and then sent via the Internet to Baldwin for recording. He sends the recorded file to Fink, who then produces it on Audacity, and then sends it to Cranor to upload to the server and send it out into the world.
For a show just shy of being two years old, it has become remarkably popular. In July 2013, it accomplished the rare feat of beating the podcast version of NPR’s This American Life in iTunes’ listing of top 10 podcasts, and still maintains a place in that list of top 10. This all with no marketing outside of social media and word of mouth.
With the show becoming as popular as it is, how far in advance do the writers work on the plot lines? “The first year was very much episode by episode,” Fink says. “We were kind of figuring out stuff as we wrote it. I don’t really think it’s slow moving so much as just it’s not really a story in the way that like a book or a TV show is that has an arc and an end point, you know? We kind of think of it as sort of a real-time news show for the town, and so it kind of has to be structured that way where it’s just this sort of ongoing universe and there’s less of a like barreling towards some specific end point that you can do when you have an end point. This year, we’re planning ahead a little more. We know kind of where we’re going for the second year anniversary, and we have stuff in play for that that we kind of know to a certain amount how they’re going to get there.”
The two enjoy the times when they’re able to surprise each other with plotlines and making things unusual. Says Cranor, “I think we’ve both have had moments where I’ve written something and sent it to Joseph and Joseph will read it and be like, ‘Oh, well, I guess this is happening now.’ And vice versa. Which is really fun.” He continues, “We really haven’t had a case yet, I don’t think, where we’ve said to each other this is not going to work. We kind of feel like as long as we stay true to the continuity and the rules of the Night Vale universe, that we can make any storyline happen, you know? As long as we’re not violating the rules that we’ve set up for ourselves within Night Vale, we can work within anything, that any storyline can be made to work.”
One of the pleasant surprises of the show has been a romantic relationship between Cecil’s character (also called Cecil) and another character, Carlos. “That was very organic,” Fink says of the development of the relationship. “Cecil showed interest in Carlos in the first episode that I wrote. Because it was the first episode, most of the characters were more of one-joke characters as you kind of have to be until you can have time to flush them out. Back then, Carlos was more just kind of a parody of the handsome outsider scientist who comes to figure everything out.”
Cranor agrees that part of the reason they were able to pursue this aspect was the nature of the show. Since the podcast was written as an ongoing news report, Baldwin’s interpretation of the narration helped shape the narrative as much as their own writing. “Over time, you just kind of develop more interest in storylines and it makes you want to develop certain stories.”
Fink admits the romance snuck up on him. He says, “I don’t think I decided to have them get together at the end of the first year until I was sitting down to write that script, and I’m like, ‘You know what? Let’s do this.'”
Fink thinks that part of their success comes from the fact that their audience differs from a ‘typical’ podcast audience. “I think the usual podcast audience is a little insular at this point,” he says. “It’s generally men between the ages of 18 and 35. For the most part, we have a lot of different listeners from a lot of different places. Our fanbase is primarily young and female: women ages 14 to 30 is by far our biggest demographic, which really makes me happy, because I think that’s a demographic that podcasting can really use.”
So, what’s in store for the future of the podcast? Welcome to Night Vale is in the middle of a March tour (after a successful east coast tour in January), with one of the episodes available for purchase; they will be at Emerald City Comicon in March 2014 with an exclusive show with The Thrilling Adventure Hour; and they recently announced that a stand-alone Night Vale novel will be published by Harper Perennial in 2015. In the meantime, the show is dedicated to one thing: “We report only the real, the semi-real, and the verifiably unreal.” – episode 23, “Eternal Scouts”.
For more information on the podcast, the novel, or the tour, go to welcometonightvale.com.