Mythological Duty: "Welcome to Night Vale" creators visit Ann Arbor
One article about the popular, fiercely beloved Welcome to Night Vale podcast begins with the line, “Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard of” the show.
But until I’d received a copy of the novel It Devours! written by the podcast's creators, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, and researched Night Vale in preparation for a recent phone interview with Cranor, I’d been one such under-the-rock dweller.
Yet because the podcast could be described as the David Lynch version of A Prairie Home Companion -- focusing on a fictional desert town in the American Southwest, where all conspiracy theories are true -- I asked Cranor if any of Night Vale’s residents also live under rocks.
“No, but one of the characters is a rock -- the dean of the Night Vale Community College, Sarah Sultan,” said Cranor without missing a beat, referring to a character who communicates via telepathy.
Well, then. At least I might have some company.
Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor will be with artist and illustrator Jessica Hayworth at U-M's Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre on October 23 at 7 pm, courtesy of Literati Bookstore. The three will be interviewed by Detroit writer, actor, comedienne, and The Moth Storyslam Ann Arbor host Satori Shakoor, followed by an audience Q&A and signing.
Cranor answered questions for Pulp about Welcome to Night Vale and It Devours!.
Q: This is the second Night Vale-based novel you and Joseph have collaborated on. Is it challenging to write for both longtime podcast fans and those who might be “visiting” Night Vale for the first time?
A: It’s always a top consideration for us. When we write the novels, we don’t want you to have to listen to one hundred podcasts first and read the first novel to enjoy it. But we’ve been doing the podcasts for so long that we have a deep understanding of this universe. The town itself is the main character. So with a novel, it’s just a matter of resetting that idea for those brand new to us, and for those already familiar with Night Vale, it’s more like, look, here’s a new story, a new adventure, a new mystery to solve.
Q: How did you guys come up with the town’s name?
A: It was Joseph who came up with the name, piecing together the word “night” with “vale,” the latter being a semi-common word that you’ll see in towns’ names across the country. But we wanted a town name that doesn’t exist in the real world. So the opposite of, say, Springfield in The Simpsons, which, there are Springfields everywhere, we did a bunch of Google searches to make sure there was no Night Vale anywhere.
Q: Have you always been drawn to stories that have elements of magical realism, or otherworldly qualities?
A: Yeah, definitely. The first book I read over and over again was Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I loved the dream logic of it -- spoiler alert! It’s a dream! -- and I was always really taken by that as a kid. It was always a scary adventure to read that book, because what was happening didn’t match up with what should be happening. That’s what makes horror truly horrifying -- when we can’t understand something. ... I’ve always been interested in the strange, and why we’re so afraid of or tickled by it.
Q: You’ve been doing the podcast since 2012, and its popularity exploded in 2013. Between constantly writing new material for the podcast, live shows, and novels, do you get burned out?
A: No. I really love writing, and it’s really fun to do it with somebody like Joseph. But it’s like someone who writes sketch comedy, or writes novels for a living, or like being a journalist. It’s a job, and you have deadlines to make, but it’s really nice to have a job where you get to write full-time. ... That’s not to say I don’t have days where it’s like, “I’m not feeling it right now,” and obviously, there’s always a lot going on. Keeping up is always the thing, so we have to be careful with time management. But it really is fun, and it’s made easier by the fact that I get to work with Joseph, who can help take the load off when I need a break, and I do the same for him.
Q: Co-writing a novel seems like it would be a very different process than co-writing a podcast script. How do you tackle that as a writing team?
A: When we write podcast scripts, which are about 2,500 words each, it’s easy to say, “I’ll do this one, and you can do the next one,” and then edit each other’s work. You can’t do that with a novel -- say, like, “I’ll write the first 40,000 words!” -- because the word count is so much higher. So we’ll have a few meetings to talk through an outline, say, here’s our four or five act structure, do an abstract for each chapter -- where it begins and ends -- and we’ll work from there. One of us will say, “I’ll write chapters three through nine, you do chapters 10 through 14, and I’ll grab the ones after that.” Then when we have a full novel, it’s just a matter of editing for things like continuity.
Q: You guys began the podcast on your own, with total creative freedom, while publishing a novel involves working with editors who may have different priorities and goals for your novel. Was that a challenging shift?
A: Generally, it’s been enormously helpful to have extra people reading it with a critical eye. The only thing, and it’s not a big thing, comes up when copyeditors aren’t familiar with Night Vale’s absurd sense of humor. Like, in our first novel, there’s a moment when we include a fake Eleanor Roosevelt quote that goes, “One day we will destroy the moon with our indifference!” And the copyeditors came back to us saying, “We can’t source this,” and we had to say, “That’s fine.”
Q: How do you carve out time to take on novels when you’re already always under the gun for new podcast scripts?
A: We have to plan it out far in advance. We’ve already started working on a third novel, without having committed to it being printed yet. But we want to stay on top of it, because it takes months and months to edit it, finalize it -- it takes about a year to get from a final edit to seeing it in a store, so we try to start as early as we can.
Q: It Devours! tells the story of Night Vale scientist Nilanjana, who seeks help from The Church of the Smiling God member Darryl to figure out the cause of violent rumblings and sinkholes. Was your starting point for the novel a desire to explore where science and religion intersect and clash?
A: It started the way a lot of our podcasts start, which is, we get a phrase in our head, and with the novel, the phrase was, “The Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God.” ... And (Night Vale scientist Nilanjana Sikdar) was just briefly mentioned in the first novel, so we thought, let’s take a character we haven’t developed before and go on her journey. And that crossover, where religion and science are at odds, is something (Joseph and I) are both really interested in. It’s a pretty major struggle across human history. ... So it seemed a fun thing to play with.
Q: Those familiar with Night Vale’s mythology won’t be surprised to learn that you both make as much fun of the scientists as you do the people in this cultish church.
A: A lot of (our stories) just make fun of humanity in general, and how we’re all so fallible. As a scientist, you may feel empowered by factual righteousness, whereas if you’re religious, you may feel empowered by spiritual righteousness. ... But when you really think of all of the limitations of the human mind and body, it all just seems so rife with struggle and comedy and drama.
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, along with illustrator Jessica Hayworth, visit U-M's Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 N. University Ave., on October 23 at 7 pm, courtesy of Literati Bookstore, to discuss their podcast, "Welcome to Night Vale," and their new book, "It Devours!" General admission tickets are $25.12, which is the cost of the novel with tax and a service fee; books are to be picked up at the venue the night of the event. Visit literatibookstore.com for more information and tickets.