Befitting its status as an anonymous city in the American Southwest, Night Vale can be hard to pin down. Sure, there are the Patsy Cline seances at the local record store and the romantic evenings in the Arby’s parking lot that you would expect of any small desert town. But what of Night Vale’s more unique eccentricities, like the tiny civilization that lives under the bowling alley? Or the startling parade of hideous, oft-mysterious deaths of its public radio interns?
As a podcast, Welcome to Night Vale is far easier to categorize: it’s a raging success. The long-running weekly dispatches from this lagoon of the bizarro have vaulted this town and its creators—Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor—into the creative stratosphere. The podcast begat a series of successful live-show tours and, last year, a bestselling standalone novel. Now, every episode of Night Vale’s first two seasons has been transcribed and collected in two print volumes, Mostly Void, Partially Stars and The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe, on sale September 6. Interspersed with the scripts is commentary from the writers and performers and original, appropriately strange artwork.
To peel back the curtain even further, we recently caught up with Joseph Fink outside the dog park to chat about Night Vale’s endearing oddities, how we might consume it in the future, and Steve Carlsberg.
Now that you’ve turned the podcast into a live show, a novel, and these novelized scripts, are there any formats left you’d like to explore?
I think we’re open to anything. A lot of it is just, Night Vale is something that belongs to us, and that we make ourselves. It’s still made the same way, just two of us writing it and then a close-knit, small group of performers making it. The nice thing about books is that, even though we have Harper publishing it and editing it—and we couldn’t do it to this scale [or quality] without Harper—we still know how to write a book. It’s still something that comes from us, and it’s something we know how to do. Whereas a board game or a movie are things that we don’t necessarily know how to do. So they’re not out of the question; they’re just something we take a lot slower and more carefully, because it involves learning things.
Is it possible at this point for you to pick out a favorite episode?
Not a favorite. There are a bunch I’m really proud of. We’re approaching it from the point of view of making it, so [often] I’m really proud of the work we did, or just the particular way of making it was interesting. The one we often point to as kind of unusual in how we made it is “Episode 67: [Best Of?].” At this point, Jeffrey and I tend to write the scripts almost completely separately. We’ll take turns writing the rough drafts out completely and then we’ll edit them together. We’re not usually doing joint writing on any particular draft. But with “[Best Of?]” we made the choice to write it together, directly from the rough draft. Jeffrey would set up a section and I would write from there, so it was kind of an interesting writing challenge.
It allowed us to bring in James Urbaniak, an actor we just absolutely love, and who just nails voiceover work. Writing for him was a joy. It was one of the few Night Vale episodes that, rather than being edited by me, we gave to Jon Bernstein, Disparition, to do a brand new score and audio editing. In a way that a lot of the episodes aren’t, it was very much a team effort, and I think it turned out very well.
Do you have a favorite among Night Vale’s oddball side characters?
[The side] characters we like, we turn into main characters. Steve Carlsberg started out as a minor character, but, partly because we found him interesting and partly because Hal Lublin does an amazing job performing him, we have vastly expanded his role in the story. I can’t think of any [current minor character] in particular I feel is underutilized, but I’m always keeping an eye out. I regularly go back through old scripts and [thinking], “Oh right, this person! What is this person up to these days?”
Are there characters who surprised you, either in the directions they took in the story or how popular they became? Perhaps Intern Dana or Diane Crayton, who carried the novel?
Well, not surprised, no, because it’s always us making the decision. But with almost every character, when we first wrote them, we had no idea where they would be in terms of their [centrality] to the story, outside of maybe Cecil and Carlos. Like Diane Crayton; that was somebody who was a very minor character, but one that Jeffrey could see a whole story for. He pitched that as part of the novel, and it really made sense. Same thing with Steve Carlsberg, a character that started out as a single joke. I started an experiment, writing stuff from his point of view, and found there was a lot to expand on. Dana was another one. We realized we had an intern that had somehow survived, which had never happened before. So, we realized she must be important somehow, if only we could figure out how.
Literature has been a big part of Night Vale from the beginning—I’m thinking of Tamika Flynn’s heroics during the Summer Reading Program. Throughout the series, you nod to classics like “The Lottery.” Tamika reads Cry, the Beloved Country. Then there are the blood-streaked Ursula K. Le Guin books. All of that said, what books have influenced you the most?
In terms of Night Vale, there’s two we always point to. This isn’t one of the two, but I do think Thomas Pynchon has a lot to do with Night Vale, in the way that Thomas Pynchon has a way of building these vast conspiracies that are absolutely meaningless. They feed on themselves, and loop back on themselves, and they don’t actually make sense, but they’re this way of representing the chaotic randomness of life, and the way that life often doesn’t have meaning. I think Night Vale definitely owes a debt to that.
The two we often point to are the novelist Deb Olin Unferth and the playwright Will Eno. Deb Olin Unferth wrote a novel called Vacation that I read when I was 22. I bought it on a whim because it had a cool cover, and I read it, and I read it again. I had never seen anyone write like that, using that kind of language, and I immediately realized that even after years of trying to be the best writer I could be, I was like, “Well, I have so much to learn. I need to learn to write like this, because she’s doing something I never even thought of doing with language.” She was a big influence on the language of Night Vale.
[Will Eno] was someone Jeffrey brought to my attention. I had never heard of him, and Jeffrey had been a fan for years. He does these very strange plays, and uses language in this amazing way, where even on a sentence-level, there’s often surprises. Sentences will start in one place and land somewhere you never saw coming. One of his big hits was a one-man play called Thom Pain (based on nothing) that’s just a single, amazing monologuethat does so many things with and to language. If you combine Thom Pain (based on nothing) and Vacation, you get the seed of what we were trying to do with Night Vale at the start.
One of the things people point to with Night Vale’s success is its focus on a diverse cast of characters. Do you ever marvel at the fact that diversity is still considered remarkable?
I hate being congratulated [for] as doing something special [for] doing that. I get that it is rare. But it feels like a baseline thing that people should do. Even leaving aside the moral issues or the issues of representation, I think when you’re writing about the world in a way that is interesting and not lazy, the world is a very diverse place. If you want to write honestly and directly and find something new to say, you have to write about it as it is. I feel like people that end up creating things that don’t have that diversity, what [it] often boils down to is laziness. They’re not writing about the world as it is; they’re regurgitating ideas that other people have given them and that they’ve seen, and they just keep feeding that back. [For us], it just comes out of, “This is the way the world actually is, and as artists, we should do our best to reflect that.”
You and Jeffrey both have individual side projects, you’re working on projects together outside of Night Vale, and there are tours. How long would you like to keep Night Vale going?
We don’t have a current end date. Our answer is usually that we will eventually die. I honestly don’t know. I think writing books is something we love to do, and it’s something that, with any luck, we’ll get to keep doing for the rest of my life. In terms of the podcast, it’s still fun to make. If it ever stops being fun to make, I guess we’ll probably stop making it. But for the time being, it’s still worthwhile.