“A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome to Night Vale,” opens the first episode of Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink's pod cast hit, “Welcome to Night Vale.” What you have is a small, Southwestern town where every conspiracy imaginable is true and it's all reported to you by a consolatory radio station host named Cecil.
Now in its fifth year, “Welcome to Night Vale” is a cult hit that has spawned two novels, “Welcome to Night Vale” and the newly released “It Devours!” Creators Cranor and Fink continue worldbuilding in the town of Night Vale, but have extended their storytelling reach with multiple other ventures, like podcasts, “Within the Wires” and “Alice Isn't Dead.” Currently, the fellas are winding down a book tour for “It Devours!” and going full-tilt on touring the “Welcome to Night Vale” podcast as a live show with dates across the U.S., New Zealand, and Australia. You can catch the show at the Kimo Theatre in Albuquerque on Thursday, Nov. 30.
DGO spoke to co-creator Jeffrey Cranor about if “Night Vale” will ever end, the new book, podcast creation, and inspirations.
Podcast writing can be like laying railroad track for a train always rolling down the bend. What happens when you get “stuck” while writing? Do you get “stuck?” I get stuck in a way that I get stuck in a lot of things in life, which is, “I just don't feel like doing this today.” That definitely happens and it can feel like the proverbial writer's block. In a lot of ways, it's like exercising. Some days you just don't feel up for it but you know, “I need to do this.” So you start with what you know you can do ... A lot of times, to get unstuck, I say, “You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to write 500 words.” If I don't feel it for an episode or something that is due, I'll write 500 words on anything. To get the blood flowing.
How much of a season do you have done before the season goes live?It varies. With “Night Vale,” because it's an ongoing thing, there's not seasons. There are bigger arcs that we have to plan out correctly, but with “Night Vale” it varies. Joseph and I are on a book tour right now and we tried to get everything done through Dec. 1st before we left so that way we're not having to worry about writing “Night Vale” scripts from hotel rooms. Touring makes it harder to keep to a good writing schedule.
With “Within the Wires” last year, the first season, we wrote the first two or three episodes and then from then on we were about a month ahead. We were writing episodes as the season was going along. This year, we wrote all of the episodes before we recorded them.
What's the rundown of your new project “Within the Wires?”The idea behind “Within the Wires” is that each season we take a set of found audio that immerses the listener into this other universe. In the first season we took on a series of relaxation cassettes where, in the first episode, you realize you are an inmate in a medical prison and someone is trying to code messages to get you to escape. In the second season, we are taking a series of museum audio guides and have the listener as a visitor to a museum and they're learning the story about a mysterious disappearance of an artist's mentor.
Generally, your podcasts intimately connect with the audience by having a narrator directly address them – a radio host, a museum audio guide, etc. What's up with that?I've always felt that that was the No. 1 power of the podcast – and radio has this element, too – but podcasts came about in the era of earbuds. It's not that people don't listen in their car or at a computer, but I think that for the most part, the voice is literally in your ears. It's an intimate thing. That voice so close in creates a soothing connection to the narrator. There's a lot of power in that.
In the podcasts that I listened to before we ever started “Night Vale” or I started “Within the Wires,” the ones I enjoyed the most were the ones I listened to while stress-pacing around an airport before I had to get on a flight or ones I used to go to sleep to. I didn't go to sleep to them because they bored me but because they made me feel comfortable and I felt like I knew all of these hosts personally. I've always wanted to lean into that for the way that I write for Cecil or in “Within the Wires'” narrators.
How did you narrow in on what story you wanted to tell in the second “Night Vale” novel, “It Devours!?”We always like challenging ourselves as writers, Joseph and I. “Welcome to Night Vale,” that first novel really was a vast exploration of the town and had a sweeping vision of seeing all it and even getting out of the town. With “It Devours!,” we wanted to tighten up and make something that was a page-turning thriller. Our goal was to make a mystery, action-suspense story. We mulled over the phrase “the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God” as a really cool phrase and wanted to do something around that. In the spirit of how we do our novels and live shows, we want them to be one-off experiences. If you're a super fan and a “Night Vale” completest, I hope it fills in a lot of cool gaps, but if you've never listened to the show or read the first book, we wanted the novel to stand on its own.
Do you think about the audience in what you create or do you tell only the stories you want to tell?I concentrate on the stories we want to tell. I don't ever read fan fiction. If we get an email with an idea we delete it right away. I don't want that in my head. I feel like the show became popular because Joseph and I made a show that we wanted to listen to and then we found out a lot of other people did, too, and that was great. We want to keep making the show we want to listen to and go from there.
Once you get in the mindset of creating art so that people keep listening, that can become a little bit dangerous and undermine the work you want to make. I do keep the audience in mind in terms of how an audience will receive something. If you're doing a podcast, you have to remember how most people are listening to it. Don't write long, weird sentences that are hard for the actors to spit out. Write how a radio host might write. Or think about how intimate the podcast medium is. Same thing happens in theater, acknowledging, “Hey, we are all in the same room together, don't pretend like the audience isn't there with you.”
In the back of your head, do you have a vision for the someday end to “Welcome to Night Vale?” We don't really have a vision for how it will end. The history of humanity suggests that nobody makes it out alive so there's that, but I think that our idea behind the show was never to create something like “Lost” or “The Leftovers” where there is a mystery at the outset that has to be solved. There's mysteries in Night Vale and some will be solved and some won't, but until we get in the mindset of, “Yeah, we want to wind down the show,” which we don't want to do yet, until then, we don't know where it will end. It depends on where the town grows up to. There's no set end date. It's sort of weird to predict where all these characters will be however many years from now.
Are there any missteps you've made along the way to podcast domination?There's definitely the learning experience of doing anything. I think a lot of it is boring missteps. It's stuff like in our early tours we didn't know what we were doing and we didn't have a booking agent, we didn't have a tour manager. It was a lot of Joseph figuring out how to communicate with the stage crew at every venue – from really nice performing arts centers to really seedy rock clubs – and me trying to figure out where to print T-shirts in every town and how to set up a merch table and forgetting to get petty cash to give change. It was a lot of stuff like that. There are definitely things, over time, we've learned how to make easier for ourselves.
Also, with writing and the stuff we've put out into the world, there's moments where I look back and think, “If I had that script in front of me right now, I'd edit it more.” That's normal writer behavior though, to look back at what you did and say, “I could do that so much better now.”
Y'all provide people with weekly moments of the weird and fantastic. Where do you go when you need that recharge?I usually go to Twitter first and try to figure out what other people are talking about.
Joseph is always a great resource for that. I check in with him about weird stuff. My other friends are into cool and strange things I will check out.
Sometimes I will go back and check in on older things I have read before. One of my favorite film directors of all time is Roy Andersson who is a Swedish director. He did this existential trilogy that is outrageously funny and terribly dark. His last one was a “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.” His stuff is quiet, slow-paced, absurd, and very, very dry, but he has these beautiful moments that I find super inspirational.
Is there any storyteller you adore that you'd be floored by them attending a live broadcast of “Welcome to Night Vale?”Somebody who has been influential on me and who I have chatted with on email before, but he's also a super busy guy who I've never met in person, is the New York playwright Will Eno. I really, really admire his writing style. I think I spent a long time trying to emulate what he was doing and in a way to try and make myself better because I was so enamored with his sentence structure, his storytelling style, and the way he acknowledges the audience in a strangely confrontational way. A way that is not aggressive but more a matter of making the audience feel on edge at all times. It is something that theater can and should be doing. I think “Night Vale” partially came out of plays of Will Eno's that I had seen and read. That's somebody that I would be excited to have in an audience.
Interview edited and condensed for clarity. Patty Templeton