October 2015

Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

A weird, wild trip to Night Vale
Joseph Fink claims he’s calling from a New Jersey beach. I prefer to imagine that his spotty cell reception is actually because he’s calling from a dark bunker in an undisclosed location. That somehow seems more appropriate for a co-author of Welcome to Night Vale, the new novel based on the wildly popular podcast of the same name.
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Joseph Fink claims he’s calling from a New Jersey beach. I prefer to imagine that his spotty cell reception is actually because he’s calling from a dark bunker in an undisclosed location. That somehow seems more appropriate for a co-author of Welcome to Night Vale, the new novel based on the wildly popular podcast of the same name.

In case you’re late to the Night Vale party, here’s a quick recap: Fink, along with Jeffrey Cranor, created a podcast called “Welcome to Night Vale” in 2012. A traveling live show based on the podcasts came a couple of years later. Night Vale is, as Cranor describes it, “in the non-specific American southwest desert, where ghosts and government and angels are commonplace and people go about their lives.” 

The Night Vale podcasts are presented as a radio show hosted by a guy named Cecil Gershwin Palmer, who shares news about the town in a soothing, friendly and NPR-ish voice. Slate named the pilot episode as one of the best podcasts ever. 

The shows are somewhat in the vein of “A Prairie Home Companion,” only completely weird and surreal. In a recent episode, a sentient patch of haze with a wicked Midwestern accent, Deb, comes on the air with Cecil to bring a message from sponsor Jo-Ann Fabrics. Also, the highway department presents a public service announcement, read by Cecil, in which they remind Night Vale residents to buckle up, then hunker down, then forget everything, remember everything and open their eyes to what is really going on. 

“Time doesn’t work in Night Vale,” someone says in the book. And they’re right. The podcasts are unsettling, funny and deeply addictive, and the novel is a pitch-perfect spin on them.

But back to the phone call with Cranor, calling in to talk with us from New York City, and Fink, calling in from a secret location that we all know was not really on the Jersey shore. Though the two have written together for five years—they wrote and performed a play in the East Village of Manhattan before they started Night Vale—they say co-writing a novel based on a beloved podcast was an exhilarating challenge.

“We just trusted each other,” Fink said. “We would build on what the other person was writing.”

“At the very get-go, it was a completely different medium than the podcasts or live shows, where all our writing goes in someone’s ear,” Cranor says. “Once I recognized that challenge, it was a lot easier. There is a nice benefit of having built the Night Vale world already. There is some shorthand. So when [Fink] says, ‘Let’s have a scene take place here,’ I know where that is. We decided early on how we would explore the town—new and old characters—and give them a life not from Cecil’s point of view.”

In the novel, Night Vale pawn shop owner Jackie Fierro, who has been 19 as long as she can remember, is handed a piece of paper by a stranger. The paper reads, “KING CITY.” Jackie has no idea what to do with this paper or what it means, and despite her efforts to wash the paper down the shower, throw it away or burn it, it keeps returning to her hand. 

Even after an accident requires Jackie to get a cast on her arm, she knows the paper is still there. “When this comes off, I’ll be holding a paper that says ‘KING CITY,’ and I’ll keep holding it for centuries, not growing old, not growing at all, still in Night Vale, like I always have been,” she says in the hospital. “I’m never going to get my life back. I’m never going to get a life. I’ll be 19-year-old Jackie Fierro, no purpose, one slip of paper, forever.”

Jackie finds herself obsessed with finding out the meaning of the note. At the same time, in the same town, Diane Crayton is a single mom struggling to raise her son Josh, who is a teenager and—of course—also a shape-shifter who likes to become, say, a spider while driving. Josh begins searching for his birth father, and ultimately, Jackie discovers a connection with Josh she never imagined.

Diane was a character who popped up in early podcasts as a throwaway, but Cranor wanted to explore her story more in the novel. “She just sort of stuck with me,” he said. “I just wanted to think more about Diane. Does she have kids? She’s definitely on the PTA. She’s a character who would be hard to develop just through Cecil. I gave her more breadth.”

Fink, on the other hand, wanted to explore Jackie. “She has been in my head for quite awhile,” he says. “Originally she was just a very creepy idea.”

Don’t worry; there’s still plenty of Cecil and some of the other characters that podcast fans know and love and obsessively follow. Night Vale’s popularity has spawned many Tumblr sites and volumes of fan fiction, all of which the authors deeply appreciate, and none of which they read.

“I’m super thrilled that it exists,” Cranor says. “As a writer, I just don’t want that in my head. It’s an expression of love to build a fan canon, but it would conflict with my own ideas. I need to make sure I’m not muddying my own ideas.”

The fans of Night Vale are as eclectic as the town itself.

“We have all sorts of fans,” Fink says. “Teens come [to the live shows] with their parents and grandparents, and that’s a really cool thing when they all enjoy it for a different reason.”

Welcome to Night Vale lives up to the podcast hype in every way. It is a singularly inventive visit to an otherworldly town that’s the stuff of nightmares and daydreams.

 

This article was originally published in the October 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Get the Book

Welcome to Night Vale

Welcome to Night Vale

By Jeffrey Cranor & Joseph Fink
Harper Perennial
ISBN 9780062351425

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