“All that glitters is not gold. Particularly that thing over there. That’s maybe a giant insect of some sort. It’s really too dark to tell. Welcome to Night Vale.” – Cecil Palmer, “Night Vale” radio host (Episode 44, “Cookies”)
If you’ve never listened to the podcast “Welcome to Night Vale,” you’re already less of a person. But that’s okay, because you can always become more of a person. It’s one of the many perks to being a person.
Every two weeks, writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor and actor Cecil Baldwin take audiences into the small desert town of Night Vale, where real estate agents live inside deer, a five-headed dragon runs for Mayor and is also a blogger, and a faceless old woman secretly lives in your home.
It’s a perfect mix of engaging storytelling and absurd humor. Think “Prairie Home Companion” meets “Twin Peaks,” but where space and time sometimes don’t matter.
The Huffington Post sat down with the trio to talk about the release of their new book, Welcome to Night Vale, a more traditional format for a very untraditional project.
What did you see as the biggest difference between writing the book and writing the podcast?
Joseph Fink: It’s a lot longer.
Jeffrey Cranor: We decided to take it out of Cecil’s voice, because while Cecil is reading the audiobook, it is ultimately a novel, so there is about 12 hours of audiobook there. The idea of a 12-hour radio show is not what we were doing. We wanted to take it into a narrative author’s world, go around Night Vale outside of Cecil’s point of view, which allows us to see something new.
You guys were writing the book while still doing the podcast. Did you have to plan ahead since this book wouldn’t be coming out until a year further into the “Night Vale” narrative?
Jeffrey: We definitely put thought into it. We had to think about when the book was coming out, and kind of where in the vicinity of the timeline it would be. We didn’t want to write the book ignorant of the podcast timing. Months and months from now it won’t make a ton of difference because people will be picking up the book at a different point from the podcast, but I think the people who are keeping time with the podcast are probably the same people who will buy the book the day it comes out and read it immediately.
Does the podcast, and the often odd logic of the writing, make it easier to write the book and not worry so much about continuity?
Joseph: Oh, we worried strongly about the continuity. I mean, “Night Vale” has very strict continuity. That’s sort of the thing that allows us to be as weird as we are. From the very start, we said we can doing anything we want as long as we have a strict continuity. So there’s actually a very strict continuity that goes into the book as well.
Cecil, what were your influences, voicewise? Because it seems to change from episode 1 to episode 70.
Cecil Baldwin: It changed so much. We were still trying to figure out what this character was. And it was definitely a disembodied late-night radio host voice. There were some specifics here and there but there wasn’t a true personality yet. Much like any pilot. As the show went on, we all found more about the person behind the microphone and the people around [him]. Then they’ll write more and then it reflects back on itself, performance to writing.
From a physicality standpoint, once the show started taking off, were you very protective of your voice? Were you walking into rooms yelling, “I need a humidifier in here!”?
Cecil: [Laughs] Oh, no! It’s just years of working in the theater, there’s certain things you try to do. Honestly keeping hydrated and taking vitamins are probably the best things you can do. We have a pretty rigorous touring schedule, and it’s trying to maintain that, but for the most part for the making of the podcast and the live shows, the microphone does a lot of the heavy lifting, which helps give the performance layers.
Joseph and Jeffrey, how has your writing evolved since the start of the podcast?
Joseph: We sort of just keep trying to do new things. We write, I feel, almost exactly the same in both the work rhythm and the general goal of telling stories that seem interesting to us, and then not really worrying about outside of that. On a personal level, I just constantly try to find new things to do with the 30-minute audio format, and new ways of telling stories, and things you can do with language. And that’s just a constant search.
Jeffrey: Yeah, as a writer I find I’m always trying to find tics and habits I have that I want to phase out. Then you read other stuff and go, “Oh, this is really beautiful, I’m really inspired by this, I’m feeling more emotional lately and I’m going to talk about these types of feelings.” I think that’s just how we are as writers. You’re always taking things in and putting things back out.
Is there a “Night Vale” film in the future? And given the characteristics of space and time, is that even possible given the way the world of Night Vale works?
Joseph: Sure, I think anything’s possible.
Jeffrey: We always have people interested, whether it’s a movie or any number of things, like “Please make a ‘Night Vale’ keychain!” or something, you know.
Cecil: “Night Vale,” the musical.
Joseph: “Night Vale,” the card game.
Jeffrey: All kinds of stuff. And you know, for us, we all come from this background of theater and stage performance and writing, so the idea of going from the podcast to the stage was a really logical and obvious transition. It’s been really great because Cecil’s so great onstage and we feel very comfortable in writing for that and understanding that, and the same thing for the novel.
And you know, moving into other mediums, it just takes more time finding the right people to work with, because none of us come from the background of making a TV show or making a film or making a tabletop game [laughs]. That requires a lot more reaching out. It’s not like we hit on a thing that could get us a check written. I’m sure if we said, “Sure, write us a check,” we could find someone to write a dollar amount, but that’s not what we’re interested in doing. We actually like “Night Vale.” Like, we’re not trying to sell it off.
You mentioned earlier about following a strict continuity for “Night Vale.” Do you guys have a show bible the way some TV shows might?
Joseph: My only bible is the actual Bible.
Jeffrey: That’s what we use, we use the actual Old Testament.
Cecil: That’s it. If it’s not in the Bible, we don’t want to talk about it.
Joseph: No, I mean we had a spreadsheet, briefly, that lasted like four episodes. Because there’s only two of us writing it, you have lot more control than if you had a staff of writers and new people coming and going and you have to keep everything stable. Which is not to say we don’t make mistakes; we constantly make continuity mistakes. And then we sort of talk our way out of them in later episodes. But yes, we depend entirely on our fragile memory.
Cecil: Somebody made a “Night Vale” wiki page. I use that all the time. You know, trying to remember if this one character in episode 50 has appeared in episode 5 and also, did that person have a specific voice? That’s always a challenge and it’s easy to look online and be like, “When did X character appear, and in what episode?” and then I can go back through my sound files of old episodes and, “Oh, that’s what that person sounded like.” Then I can choose to, you know, pick up that character voice or do a more third-person read of what that person said. I think that’s the only online resource I really use. Because it is, you know, unwieldy amounts of pages and pages.
You had Will Wheaton on the show several times. Are there any other celebrities you would love to get on the show?
Joseph: Yes. Tatiana Maslany.
Joseph: Tatiana Maslany. As Hiram McDaniels’ sister. I’ve been very seriously trying to get her. We’ll see how that goes. That’s my biggest dream.
Jeffrey: Barack Obama.
Cecil: Whoopi Goldberg. I always thought Whoopi Goldberg on the show would be amazing.
Where do you see podcasts, as a form, going? Because it hasn’t quite been monetized yet.
Cecil: Oh, don’t worry, people are always finding ways to monetize anything.
Joseph: It’s being monetized, actually, in a huge way. It’s a little worrying, in the last few months, big money has really come into podcasting. Bill Simmons’ podcast is produced by HBO. WNYC just announced a $ 15 million podcast studio. And they also had like a contest where the winners got, like, a $ 100K to do a podcast? GE is producing a serial drama podcast that’s 20 to 30 minutes long.
So, yeah I find that all super worrying because I think what makes podcasting really good is that it has this very low barrier of entry. You just need to have a very good and very specific idea and then you need to be able to execute that in front of a mic and then you’re on the same playing field as everyone else.
I think that’s still very much the case but I worry about that going forward as big money starts pouring into it.
Jeffrey: One of the great ways to find out about podcasts is the gatekeepers like iTunes and their lists and mysterious algorithms for why things move to the top of the list. In the four months that “Night Vale” was No. 1 overall above “This American Life,” it was never because “Night Vale” had more listeners than “This American Life.” That’s never been the case. We just had this surge of popularity.
Cecil: There was a dramatic spike.
Jeffrey: Once that surge came back down to a naturally steady increase, we obviously fell back below “This American Life.” But for us being an independent podcast, it was a really great thing to be able to have that. And my worry comes from whether or not that can stay a thing. “Lore” is another new podcast that is interesting and independent.
Joseph: “Lore” just hit the top 10 on iTunes.
Jeffrey: And that’s great, it makes me super thrilled to see independent podcasters reaching that. And I think there’s this hope that institutions like Radiotopia can hold it together and still be at the forefront of putting new, cool stuff out there that people can discover. You know, if big money comes into it, and Bill Simmons and GE and people like that are always at the top of the list.
Joseph: Or if they can buy big ads, because at the moment the iTunes main page is an equal mix of weird independent stuff, and if you have GE podcasts and HBO podcasts, then it really kills that.
Cecil: I think a lot about the ‘90s and the independent film movement when technology became more affordable and more accessible to filmmakers. All of a sudden, you have so many more diverse films being made under the banner of independent cinema.
And then now that’s like 25 years later and IFC [Independent Film Channel] came out of that, and is IFC independent film anymore? What does that mean?
It’s sort of the natural way of things, and it’s amazing to be on the vanguard of any movement. For us, it’s just keeping it going and exploring other new avenues and new mediums.
Joseph: I used to be super into fracking until the big energy companies moved in.
Cecil: Ugh, yeah it’s so over.
Jeffrey: Yeah, it’s really annoying, now it’s everyone’s thing. All the hipsters are fracking.
Thanks to Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor and Cecil Baldwin. Their new book, Welcome To Night Vale is out Tuesday wherever books are sold, and probably some places where books aren’t sold and the vendor is perhaps wondering where all these books came from.
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