Welcome to Night Vale is proof that compelling storytelling can triumph in any medium. The podcast—presented as a faux radio show from the fictional desert town of Night Vale—reached the #1 spot on iTunes only a year after its inception in 2012. Its success has everything to do with the witty and endlessly creative storytelling capabilities of its creators, Joseph Fink (left in photo) and Jeffrey Cranor, who have constructed a world described as “Lake Wobegon as written by Stephen King.”
This week saw the release of the first novel set in the Night Vale community, a brand new story also titled Welcome to Night Vale. As enjoyable and eerie as the podcast, the book follows permanently 19-year-old pawnshop proprietor Jackie Fierro as she tries to get rid of a piece of paper reading “KING CITY.” This would be a simple task, except for the fact that a mysterious man no one remembers gave her the paper that is now stuck to her hand. The novel also tells the story of Diane Crayton and her shape-shifting son, Josh, who continually encounter Josh’s estranged father under bizarre circumstances.
Paste caught up with Fink and Cranor to chat about the differences between writing a podcast and a novel, the music they’ve enjoyed and how their collaborative partnership yields such consistent and creative content.
Paste: One thing I’ve always loved about listening to the podcast is the weather segment featuring new music every week. Are there any musicians who have been particularly influential in your lives?
Joseph Fink: I’ve always been really attracted to musicians who are good lyricists. Lyrics are very important to me. As a teenager, like most teenage boys, I was really into Ani DiFranco. [Laughs] She was actually the first concert I went to when I was 13. I’m super into The Mountain Goats, so it’s really enjoyable now that we’ve worked with [John Darnielle] a bit. He’s helped us learn how to tour, so it’s great to learn that from someone I respect so much. For years, I was super into The Hold Steady. Pretty interesting lyric writing.
Jeffrey Cranor: This is a weird admission, but I’ve never followed any musicians that closely. I think I’m similar to Joseph in that I was always more attracted to lyrics than I was to the music itself. My music knowledge is pretty limited. But I remember being a teenager in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and really getting into the new movement of hip-hop. I got very into Public Enemy, Mos Def and people like that. I liked the idea of music and message being so intricately linked.
Paste: What about influences from a wider lens? Novelists, TV shows, radio shows that influenced the podcast and now the novel?
Fink: Deb Olin Unferth wrote a book called Vacation that taught me a lot about what is possible with language, and the playwright Will Eno has a similar grasp on sentences that push you to different places than you expect to be. That’s something we always try to do as much as possible.
Paste: How mysterious are these characters to you? Do you feel you know more about them than the readers or listeners? Or are you figuring out new things about them through the process of writing?
Cranor: It’s a combination of both. We know more about them than our listeners, because, ultimately, we’re the ones who write the stories down. If nothing else, we know at least the next few episodes, because they’re already in the can waiting to be uploaded.
As an ongoing serial, speaking of the podcast and not the novel, we have so much freedom to go in so many directions. These characters can age and change and become different people without regard to a limited number of minutes or a certain amount of episodes allowed. We can do lots of different things and explore them like normal human beings going through their lives. You can really go in a lot of different directions. There are some characters who went in a way different direction than we thought they would on the day we initially wrote them.
Paste: How did you decide now was the time to write a Night Vale novel?
Fink: After Night Vale kind of blew up in popularity in July 2013, we sat with different people to think of different ways to go at that point. I think the most in step were the publishers, because we’re both lifelong writers and readers. Novel writing is something I think we’re both really interested in and both felt very comfortable with. We write Night Vale as very short stories, so writing more prose was definitely in our wheelhouse. We didn’t have to learn any vastly new technical skills. We started in on that plan around late summer/early fall of 2013.
Paste: Why did you want to tell this particular story in the form of a novel, as opposed to story narrated by Cecil (Night Vale’s radio host voiced by Cecil Baldwin) in the podcast?
Cranor: I think, with a novel, you can do so many things you can’t do on the podcast. On the podcast, the narrator is predominately Cecil’s voice, and, even if it’s somebody else’s voice, it’s usually him inviting someone on to the show—whether it’s a call, a voicemail or a public announcement. With the novel, we knew we could take it out of Cecil’s studio. We could keep him as a character, as a touchstone of Night Vale. But we can go inside character’s heads and different buildings. We don’t have to stay within the pretense of a radio studio anymore. The whole map of Night Vale becomes, not a map, but a three-dimensional place. We can roam about and have mysteries and adventures and difficulties.
Paste: Were there any tough moments while developing a narrative voice beyond Cecil’s? How did you distinguish the novel’s narrative voice from his?
Cranor: It was easy insofar as writing is always existing on varying levels of easiness. It wasn’t hard to find new voices relative to writing the podcast. The tone of the show is a voice Joseph and I have developed over time, and the novel carries that sensibility with it. In addition, taking it outside of Cecil’s voice and giving it to the narrator, we have a voice that’s a little more knowledgeable about the things that are happening and probably, as much as you can trust two novelists, a little more reliable.
Paste: What’s the collaborative process like for both of you?
Fink: We’d been writing together for five years or so, starting with a play and then with the podcast. By the time we got to the novel, our collaborative process was pretty set. We alternate writing and editing each other’s work. The novel was written almost in the exact same way the podcast was. Obviously, the scope of the story was larger, but the process was almost the same.
Paste: Do you view this novel as the start of a series of books about Night Vale?
Cranor: I think our goal is to have a career writing. Writing the podcast, writing live shows and writing novels as long as people will keep publishing them. We’ve already started talking about upcoming writing projects. Hopefully, we’ll have a second novel out. I don’t have much more on it than that, but we’re definitely working on one right now.