Deep inside the making of the new Night Vale book

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Oct 18, 2017

Yesterday marked the release of It Devours!, a new novel set in the universe of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast. Started in 2012, the podcast is a bi-weekly fictional broadcast of Night Vale Community Radio hosted by Cecil Palmer (voiced by Cecil Baldwin) that has, over the years, explored time travel, nuclear war, alternate realities, and love. It has since expanded into a veritable empire of life-affirming abject horror.

The two creative minds behind Welcome to Night Vale are writers Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink. I spoke to Jeffrey about the new book, writing as a team, and handling secrets in a world of mystery.

How have you managed to, along with everything else you do, squeeze in two complete novels? I think a lot of people would take five and a half years just to do that.

Jeffrey Cranor: (Laughs) You know, a lot of it is just planning and scheduling. But it does help a lot having a co-writer. You have somebody who is ostensibly writing half of the work required for a novel, so a 100,000-word novel is 50,000 words, right? The other thing is that we've been writing the podcast for five years, as opposed to the person who sits down to write a brand new novel, who has to create characters and a setting and rules and a whole arc for their world. We already had a whole lot of that set up. So it's nice that we can write a novel set in a world that's largely written. Been written for several years.

This is your second novel, after Welcome to Night Vale.

Yes.

And I noticed that each book uses the word "f***" exactly once.

Oh really? That's really interesting.

Yeah. I was curious if that's a self-imposed rating system, or just a coincidence.

(Laughs) You know, it's funny, I hadn't really thought about that. Although we do try to be a little judicious in that it doesn't really make sense with the characters we've built. We haven't really written a character that would necessarily be somebody who would swear a whole lot. And so it's one of those things where if used sparingly, it apparently stands out a little bit more.

Jeffrey Cranor

In this novel, you chose to have your main character come from outside of Night Vale. In the last book your protagonists were the mother of a shape-shifting teenager and a woman who's been stuck for decades at age 19. Those are Night Valean issues. But Nilanjana comes from Indiana. Why'd you choose this time to focus on someone who's still getting used to how Night Vale works?

I think it just offered a different, new perspective on the town. I think that one of the beauties of a novel is it brings it out of the formatting of the podcast a little bit. The podcast is mostly restricted to Cecil's recording of what's going on, and in the books we can rove around a lot more. So it's interesting to take the point of view of somebody who's not actually from there, just like the novel reader. Also it was a little bit of an accident too, because we wanted Carlos the Scientist to be the main character. And we already set up that Carlos and his team of scientists are all outsiders. So once we decided that, we're like "Welp, that's the direction we have to go!"

Carlos is one of the main characters of the podcast, but we only ever see him through (his husband) Cecil's eyes. Now all of a sudden we see him as a real person, with a place in the town, who's fallible. Did you decide that you wanted to do that specifically in this book?

Yeah. Carlos is such a good character, and you only see him from Cecil's point of view. You know, Cecil loves him so much, and says such nice things about him. And it's interesting to get to see him at work, and see him at his own life, so he isn't only framed as a romantic partner, or something along those lines. So it allows us to fill out his persona a little bit more, and also fill out other things besides him being attractive and a good husband and a good person. And also what are the things that he does wrong? What are the things that make him really fallible? Which is what makes us human, I think.

Carlos doesn't like being touched, and he has a hard time reading emotions, which is a very distinctive characterization that I don't think I ever gleaned from the podcast. How did you decide to characterize him like that?

We introduced Carlos as this really beautiful man with beautiful hair and perfect teeth. He was sort of the classic mysterious stranger, like an old '50s sci-fi character. And I think once you set him up that way, he's really romanticized, without all of these other more realistic qualities of a human - somebody who doesn't like to be physically contacted as much, somebody who has a hard time reading people, those sorts of things. So rather than setting those up as initial things like, "Oh it's a challenge to love this person," which I think really sucks, it becomes more interesting. Once we already have a character who seems pretty perfect, it's nice to build all these qualities that still lead to something really beautiful. They're richer than beautiful hair and perfect teeth.

In the same vein, this is the least prominent that Cecil has ever been. He's a peripheral character, mentioned only in terms of Carlos. Was that a decision that you made initially, wanting to focus almost entirely on the other characters?

Yeah. In the first novel we include Cecil's radio broadcasts to the town. A lot of that was because it's our first novel, and we're calling it Welcome to Night Vale. So we wanted to ease readers into the concept of Night Vale as a novel, without removing the podcast format, still keeping a lot of the elements in there. And back to your point earlier, that the characters in the first novel were people who lived in town - it makes sense that everyone in town listens to that show pretty regularly. It would be on the radio, it would be in the background, it would be something Diane could hear and react to. And in Nilanjana's case, she may be perfectly aware of it, but she's not terribly hooked to it at all times. As an outsider she wouldn't be hearing it quite as much.

Credit: Getty Images

 

In the podcast, the Smiling God seems unequivocally ill-intentioned. But the things that happen in the book don't seem as bad as what happened to poor Kevin in Desert Bluffs.

I think the Smiling God is mal-intentioned in the same way that gods in our actual world are mal-intentioned. Like reading the Bible growing up, I'm like "This is an evil god!" And it wasn't so much to say "Oh I'm an atheist, God is awful." I don't think that at all. But I think a lot of times to outsiders a religion can seem really just terrible. You can cherry pick verses from the Bible to make it look like God is a vengeful person, or find rules and laws that make that religion seem pretty inhuman. And inhumane. And so I think that was the idea with the Smiling God - that we would have this religion that from the outside seems truly truly awful. And just like with the Judeo-Christian God of the Old Testament, that God seems to have done awful things to people that loved him. So I think that was some of the lore that we were building around it.

Night Vale takes several forms. There's the books, and there's the podcast, and there's the live shows, and each one has its own very distinct vibe. Is there one style that you feel most at home writing in?

I've always loved writing for the live show, because I come out of a theatre background. So as a playwright it's really fun to write things, have somebody perform them in front of you and in front of an audience, and have people react to it. It's kind of a living thing, right? You put it up and you take it on tour and you think "This really isn't landing right." And sometimes the answer is we need to rewrite that, and sometimes the answer is Cecil will say, "No no no, give me another couple shows, I think I can make that work." And he'll usually find something, and it's pretty amazing. Suddenly a line that you never thought was funny at all, it was just kind of a comment, suddenly Cecil makes it hilarious. So just as a playwright, that's really really rewarding.

Do you have a favorite episode? Either one that you feel most proud of having written, or just one that you like to listen to?

You know, there's so many different reasons for an episode being my favorite at any given time. I would say the two episodes that I get commented on the most as being people's favorites are "A Story About You" and "The Sandstorm" episodes. I really love ["The Sandstorm"] episodes because it was fun writing a dual episode around the same story. And then also we introduced Kevin R. Free, our actor friend, playing Kevin, which was really great. I think for me when we did "The Sandstorm," that was my first favorite moment of doing the podcast. I remember Joseph emailing me the first audio cut of Kevin's episode. I downloaded it on my phone as I was walking to work. And I was just listening to it in a cafe that morning, and I was crying. I was crying I was laughing so hard. It was so wonderful. And Kevin was so perfect. He was everything I wanted him to be. Yeah, I go back to "The Sandstorm" a lot as one of my favorites.

And of course "A Story About You" was our first of a different approach in formatting, telling one story about "you" as a person. And I think that was the first moment where we were like "Yeah, we can break out of however we want to do that."

So there have been some big revelations in the podcast recently about why Night Vale is so set apart from the rest of the world. Are you planning on addressing that more, or are you just going to keep it as something in the background to be aware of?

We may or may not. I think for us, we've never been about answers. And we definitely hear from people who are like "I want answers! Why is it like this?"

Oh shoot, I have a couple… I may have a couple questions looking for answers.

Oh, sure, and I may or may not have them for you. Some answers are really straightforward. Like, "Oh, I know the answer to that and I can't tell you," or "I know the answer to that and here it is, because it's not that important." And I think for us the whole story about Huntokar was tied into our last year's arc of people needing to look at the world around them and understand what it is. And for us to explain all of that was less about "Oh it's about time we gave answers" and more a matter of "I think this is really important that people understand it and that people in the town understand it." And I think that was really it. We've never positioned ourselves as a show like Lost, or even more recently The Leftovers, where you're like "I need to know why this happened." Some things will be explained because it's fun to explain certain things, like the Huntokar story. But for the most part I think it's like our own world, where you're just not going to get every answer you want. And we're sort of fine with that, and we hope everyone else is too.

I get the sense that you sometimes will throw things in and then years later come back to them and say "Oh yeah, we could work that into something," and all of a sudden it becomes this huge mythos around something that was a fun line three years ago.

Yeah, well that's how the Dog Park works, right? Over time we just kept going back to it because it was a neat idea, but eventually it became a thing that you're like "Oh wow, this is a really major staple of this town's weirdness. There's something really mystical happening there that we can definitely explore."

  

 

I live in Providence, Rhode Island, which is where H.P. Lovecraft is from. So, I'm sure I'm not the first one to ask, but I feel like I'd be letting my city down if I didn't ask: How much does H.P. Lovecraft influence your work? 

I think in the same way that H.P. Lovecraft influences anybody who writes any type of horror. There's something really interesting about the way that he creates for his short stories a world where you can't see everything. There are things the characters see that you never get a full glimpse at, which I think is at the heart of horror in general, and especially with a podcast, where there is no visual. Like a jump scare in audio drama would be awful to do to people. We don't play with horror that way. We play it more in the style of H.P. Lovecraft, and I think several other writers as well. You can look at something like what David Lynch has been doing with horror as well. Just last night I watched - I don't know if you know the movie The Invitation from a couple years ago?

The Invitation? No.

It's a really good, really tightly wound horror. It's a slow burn, but from the very get-go you are not sure what is happening here, and the main character isn't either. And it leaves you with a sense of dread and impending doom at any moment. You're like please, just somebody come out with a knife! Like please just do something! And while there are no monsters necessarily like Cthulhu or something like that, I think that's equally inspired by something like H.P. Lovecraft - all the things you're not allowed to see, but you know are there. It's truly horrifying.

I'm curious about the Desert Otherworld. It seems like its nature has changed a little bit. In the podcast, it sounded like Carlos was happy being there, was thinking about staying there, and now it's different. What brought about this change?

I don't think the Desert Otherworld has changed so much as we looked at it like any place... like speaking as somebody who's in New York City right now. I've always really loved it, even as a kid growing up in Texas, I've always really thought of New York City as a great town for all of its problems. But I remember when Joseph moved here, I think Joseph just never enjoyed it. I think there's different perspectives with where you want to be.

Sure.

And I think certain people go there, and they feel lost and desolate, and where has everyone gone? And what are these warring giants? What are these weird rumblings? A giant centipede, what's going on? And I think for somebody like Carlos, or even Dana, they would enjoy the adventure of it, Dana because she can report on it, and Carlos because he's a scientist and he couldn't wish for a better place to explore, to do tests and studies and write journals about. I think it was more a matter of who's there and their perspective on it.

So once you've come back to your home, where you have people that you love, the perspective of a place where you were just making do really changes?

Yeah. And part of the challenge for the year that Carlos was in the Desert Otherworld and separated from Cecil had the benefit of basically relating my own life to it. I'm married, and I have to go out of town a lot. And so it becomes this weird dichotomy where I really love going on tour. I love traveling. I love doing all these things. But it's simultaneously wonderful and awful. Because I'm away from my home. So there's this weird battle having to be grounded at home all the time. So I think that was a similar thing with Cecil and Carlos, Cecil being like "Uh, so, are you coming home?" That sort of thing. "That's cool, I'm real proud of you. Good job on your career." So I think there's a little bit of that too.

One more question: What would you like to say that I haven't already asked?

I think the thing I normally say in interviews about the books and live shows is we try to write these live shows and these novels in a way that anybody can see them. It doesn't require you to be familiar at all with the podcast. The novels alone are standalone stories. It Devours! isn't a sequel to the first novel. It is simply another offset in that world. If you like the novel, you'd probably like the podcast, but they're totally separate sorts of things.

***

As someone who's listened to every episode of the podcast, I can confirm that it's not a prerequisite for enjoying the novel. It's a lovely meditation on humanity, served with a generous dose of weird that everyone should be able to get behind. But if you've been obsessively keeping up with Cecil, and the words "Huntokar" and "Sandstorm" meant something to you, you're going to be extra fascinated by this new foray into Night Vale.

It Devours! is in bookstores now. It's a gorgeous book, both inside and out, and whether you're into religion or science or sand monsters, there's something in it for you.

(Since the time of this interview, I've watched The Invitation on Netflix and it is, in fact, very good).