The time it was about Welcome to Night Vale

Posted September 27, 2016 by Stacee in Signings / 8 Comments

When Maryelizabeth emailed me about moderating the event for Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, I admitted that I had never listened to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast. I asked her to give me some time to listen to a couple of episodes and get back to her. And the next day, I listed to 17 episodes in one day. Needless to say, I eagerly agreed.

The time leading up to the event was insanely surreal for me. I got a few friendly emails from the director of publicity for Harper. They sent me an awesome official graphic to promote the event.

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I was sent the arcs of both books and in the mailing was paperwork with the tour schedule, complete with my name as moderator. Which meant that anyone who received those mailings saw it. My name was also on the WTNV website and in their newsletter.

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On the night of the event, we got to the bookstore around 5. I ran amok, raided the back room, and finished up working on my questions. Jeffrey and Joseph were scheduled to be at the store around 6:30 to sign stock before the event started. They got there and Joseph ran to grab some food. While he was eating, the MG staff worked to set up a PA system.

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About 10 minutes before the event was to start, I met with Jeffrey and Joseph. I introduced myself and we chatted for a few minutes. They told me the format of how they normally do an event and then it started.

Please give us an elevator pitch of the WTNV podcast.

JF: It’s a fictional scripted podcast in the form of community radio from an small desert town where every conspiracy theory is true and everyone just gets on with their life.

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What’s the writing process for you guys?

{an audience member then asked who was who and they both introduced themselves as Neil Gaiman}

JC: We’ve been doing this show for almost four years now, putting 2 up two shows a month. Before that, we co-wrote a play and in the process of that, we developed a writing process where we talk about what we want to accomplish. We would both take away the notes and something to write and then come back together and exchange what we each wrote and edit each other’s things.

So when it came to the podcast, we started with the same process. And it’s sort of evolved into this thing where we take turns writing episodes. I will write something and give it to Joseph and he’ll edit and give notes. Sometimes those notes will be easy like “hey, I added some jokes, looks great, send it to Cecil when you’re ready.” It’s just a back and forth.

What’s the time frame from a finished script to the recording to the episode being posted?

JF: That depends on how on top of our game we are. We finish an episode, we send it to Cecil. Cecil records in his apartment with a $60 USB microphone. We’ve done that since episode one. We haven’t seen the need to change that.

JC: Well, we did get a nicer microphone. We got a $95 dollar one.

JF: Oh, that is true. The $60 dollar one broke and we were like “we’re a big time podcast now, let’s go $95 dollars.” We send it to him and we have a very specific directorial style with Night Vale and that is that we do our best to not direct. We’ll put in stage directions when they’re absolutely necessary, if it doesn’t come across in the text and it’s vital to the story. Otherwise, we just send it to him. Cecil is very good at what he does and the collaborative process is more interesting when your collaborators are surprising you. When they’re surprising you, that’s when they’re bringing the thing you don’t have.

I’ve only had him rerecord maybe 2 or 3 times and it’s only been when he said a word wrong enough that it changed the story. Other than that, whatever he records is what we put out. Sometimes those choices are very surprising. There’s an episode called…is that in the first book or the second book?

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JC: The Whispering Forest? I think it’s in the first book.

JF: It is in the first book. Or possibly the second. Buy both and find out.

It’s an episode called The Whispering Forest that Jeffrey wrote and it’s about a forest…that whispers. When he wrote and I read it, we both heard a creepy voice, whispering in your ear. And instead what Cecil did was a muppet voice and it was awesome. It was something we never thought to ask him to do. It just worked.

So, he’ll send me back the recordings. I put everything together in the free audio recording Audacity. Again, how we’ve done it from the very beginning. I’m completely self taught. I have no sound design training.

As far as when it goes up, it depends on a lot of things. There have been times that I’ve been finishing the editing at 9pm and we put up the episode at midnight. Often times because we go on tour — for instance we’re about to go to Europe for 2 months — so we’re desperately trying to get all of the episodes done. So we have episodes done for 3 months from now.

So if you get the episodes back from Cecil fully developed, there aren’t any bloopers or that sort of thing?

JC: We get asked a lot about bloopers and it’s funny because with Cecil, it’s just him. Every once in a while there will be someone else, but if you listen to the podcast, you know that 99.9% of the time, it’s just Cecil talking. There’s no real dialogue. Because he’s recording on his own, there’s no partner. There isn’t a producer or someone in the booth helping. There aren’t any bloopers to be had. If he stumbles over a word, he’ll just pause and then start back up. The blooper reel for Night Vale would be the dullest.

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You guys have had a lot of guest stars, who has been your favorite?

JF: We don’t have a favorite. Or we have a lot a favorites. We liked to work with delightful people because if everything else goes wrong, at least you got to hang out with delightful people. Mostly they’re people we’ve been friends with for a long time. Jasika Nicole, who plays Mayor Dana Cardinal is an old friend of Jeffrey’s and is one of the kindest human beings. Hal Loveland who plays Steve Carlsberg is one of the nicest people which is why we made him the character that everyone hates.

One of the most fun has been intern Maureen. We have these interns and they don’t live long and that’s not a coincidence. We often name them after people we know and we named intern Maureen after YA writer Maureen Johnson. And then, as we do, we killed off intern Maureen and Maureen Johnson led a Twitter campaign against us. We told her that we would bring intern Maureen back, but she had to play her. And she said okay. We had our 2nd anniversary live show and bought Maureen onstage as the newly resurrected intern Maureen. Most recently we did an episode…which was it?

JC: Umm. It was right before…or right in May or something.

JF: This spring we did an episode in which there is a voicemail from intern Maureen and when I got the recording, I think it’s my favorite thing we’ve ever had anyone do. It’s just this beautifully rambling thing and Jeffrey’s writing on it is really great. And Maureen just nailed it.

Jeffrey, you mention in the book that you have a thing about spiders.

JC: *laughs* Yeah.

If you hate spiders so much, why are you compelled to include them in so many episodes?

JC: I think it’s a couple of things. When I need something creepy and scary, the spiders become a thing to add in. It takes place the the desert, so a tarantula would be something that lives there. To me, that’s just awful. If you implant in a reader’s mind or a listener’s mind that there might be a spider on their shirt, you can do that as a scary funny joke.

In the novel, there’s actually a tarantula character and I wrote that character. Part of it is to make a sympathetic tarantula. I guess to make me feel better about them, I don’t know. Like if I can identify with this one, I’ll be cool with them all.

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What has been the hardest and easiest episode for you guys to write?

JF: Because we write separately, I can only speak for myself. I do have a specific answer and I talk about them in the book. I don’t know which episode is in which one, so just buy both and find them.

The easiest for me was A Blinking Light Up on the Mountain. It was about 1 in the morning and I was going to bed and the entire episode showed up in my head. And I needed to write it, so I got up and wrote the entire thing in about 40 minutes.

The two hardest are tied and that’s episode 33: Cassette and The Story About Them which was a sequel of The Story About You. Both of those were ones that I had the entire episode in my head, but for both of them, it genuinely took 7 or 8 months for them to sound on the pages the way they did in my head. I just kept writing and rewriting.

JC: For me, the easiest was The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home. It was really easy because we had been on our Night Vale Twitter account and there was a reoccurring joke that Joseph put out about the faceless old woman who secretly lives in your home doing something. The idea of that is already funny and scary. The character was already fully formed to me and it took about as long to write it as it did to type it. I didn’t need to outline it or anything.

The hardest was The Debate, which was our second ever live show. We don’t write dialogue. I am a playwright, that is my background, but we don’t write dialogue for Night Vale. Suddenly we had all of these people that we had to write for. We made friends with the guys who did The Thrilling Adventure Hour show and they were in town and offered up some actors and we said yes all of them. This was before we figured out that this wasn’t an improv show, we had to write parts for everyone. They sent 5 people over and that’s how we met {names a lot of people} as well as Jackson who plays Hirum McDaniels, a literal five headed dragon.

So we had about 10 people and we staged it and it’s almost all dialogue. It was really hard to do. It’s not terribly hard, but it is when you’re in a world where you don’t normally write dialogue. It took a while.

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What is your favorite episode?

JC: Mine is still…it changes all time for different reasons. From a writer’s point of view is episode 67: Best Of. We told this really scary story and it’s sort of a partner to the Cassette episode that Joseph mentioned. It was an episode that we almost wrote together. People often ask if we write in the same room and if we sit next to each other. This is one where we were divvying up parts and writing. We were sitting with our arms around each other like in Ghost. You know, that famous movie about the podcaster?

JF: I agree.

What 3 characters from Night Vale would you want to go to dinner with?

JF: Kind of none of them. They’re all sort of horrifying. I guess I would want to find the most human and least likely to do anything horrible to me.

JC: Dana.

JF: Yeah, Dana’s not a terrible choice. I think Diane Crayton feels like a kind person. And her son, who is a shapeshifter would be really entertaining to have around. I mean, and maybe this just my limited world view, but I’ve never met a shapeshifter.

JC: I think the people who seem a little wheels off, like Pamela Winchell, the former mayor of Night Vale and Director of Emergency Press Conferences. I think everything she says is really, really up here and I think she would be interesting. And probably Michelle Nguyen of Dark Owl Records just because my musical tastes are terrible. That’s two. That’s probably where I would cap it off.

What had been the most surreal moment?

JC: I think it was realizing we had an audience. When we did our first live show, for our 1 year anniversary, we did it at bar upstairs and it could seat about 100 people. We had no idea how many people were going to come. We had a comedian who was going to come and a musician we knew who would play and be the weather. There was a microphone and a small stage and we said a suggested donation would be $5 and something like 115 people showed up. It was shocking. It wasn’t something we could imagine.

JF: When we got to do the novel, it was really amazing. It was what I wanted to be since I was 4 years old. As soon as I understood what a writer was, I was like, cool, that. The idea that this hobby came to that was pretty cool. People always ask if we thought Night Vale would be this successful and no, it wasn’t even remotely in our head.

It reminded me about an essay Douglas Adams wrote giving advice for young writers. He got into writing by writing radio dramas for BBC. He said that radio was a great place for writers to start. It was easy to break into and forced you to hone your skills. I remember reading it in the late 90s and thinking that it was probably great advice in the 80s or 70s, but not useful any longer. Turns out that’s exactly how I got into writing. It also made me realize to never disregard advice because I think I know better. Because I don’t.

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Have you had any weird fan encounters?

JF: We were in Minneapolis doing an event called NerdCon and we brought a few cast members. One of them was Kate Jones who plays Michelle Nguyen and Kate was in line for coffee in the convention center. She started talking with a woman in line about what they were doing there. Kate said that she was doing a podcast called Night Vale and the woman said she loved it. And then introduced herself as the mayor of Minneapolis and gave Kate her card. She was in fact the mayor of Minneapolis and is a huge fan of Night Vale.

JC: This isn’t weird, but sort of my favorite moment. We did a show in Scotland and afterwards, this couple came up and they were dressed head to toe as Eternal Scouts. They had made all of their own badges. They were like actually patches and for things like “arson” and “insurance fraud”. It was amazing. They were from the Shetland Islands and were actually closer to Norway. It had taken them 9 1/2 hours to get there. They had to take a ferry and then another ferry and then a train and then a bus. It was a really wonderful moment of people and fans and I’m so happy I got to meet them.

Do you guys listen to other podcasts?

JF: I am subscribed to something like 35 podcasts. We started Night Vale because we loved podcasts. People often ask why we chose a podcast for Night Vale. Podcasting came first, we knew we wanted to make one, then I got the idea for Night Vale. I think it’s an amazing form of media. It allows people to experiment with things that you can’t do with other forms. It allows you to try things and throw it out into the world. I could talk for a long time about the shows I like.

One example of a weird crazy idea that shouldn’t have worked but is amazing is called The Worst Idea of All Time. It’s two guys in New Zealand and they decided to watch the movie Grown Ups 2. They had never seen Grown Ups 1 and they decided to watch Grown Ups 2 once a week for a year and after each viewing they would record about 30 minutes. So they watched it 52 times.

What makes it amazing, what makes it better than “this is a bad movie, let’s watch it and make fun of it” is that it’s closer to performance art. There was a time where they thought they weren’t taking it seriously enough so they started over. There’s a point where one of them goes on vacation in a different time zone and he’s in his hotel room watching Grown Ups 2 for the 30th time on his laptop.

You can hear it start to destroy them. They genuinely start coming apart. It’s all just genuine reactions. We got to meet them and it was great. I love that podcasting still has room for something like that.

JC: The other thing they did that year was a crowd sourced funding because they wanted to have their last episode in LA and do a live screening. We weren’t listening at that time or I would have absolutely sent them money, but one of the top level donor prizes was $500 and they would hand write the Grown Up 2 script for you from memory. I think they ended up doing 2 of them.

We just love podcasts so much. You Must Remember This is lost or forgotten stories about Hollywood. Last year she did a 10 or 12 part series called “Charles Mansion’s Hollywood” and there’s so much you think you know about him, but she takes such a fascinating angle on it. It’s hard to serialize radio, but podcasting allows that sort of storytelling.

There’s another one called Sleep With Me and the guy who does it suffers from insomnia and he made something he wanted to hear. Each episode is an hour long and the goal is to make you go to sleep. He tells a really really boring story.

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JF: In a very gentle voice.

JC: I listened to it once on the R train in New York and I was wide awake. It does follow a sort of dream logic. It’s gentle and he’s careful that there isn’t any tension or doesn’t create any energy. I’ve used it a couple of times and it’s really amazing use of the medium. I think he’s having trouble selling advertising.

JF: I think you’d want an audience that was almost asleep and you could sell anything to them.

Joseph and Jeffrey then get ready to some passages out of the books.

JF: It’s a bit tricky to read from these books. You may not realize this, but there is an audio version that pretty much nails it. At our first event for these, I read a chunk out of the pilot episode and the audience was a bit disappointed. They had already heard it and it was better.

So instead, we’ve decided to highlight some of the side pieces like the traffic reports and sponsored ads and community news. It’s easy to forget them and lose them in the bigger plot points, but they’re some of our favorite things to write. People sometimes ask if we get paid for our ads because we use real companies. We have never gotten paid from any of the companies, but we also haven’t gotten sued.

Joseph and Jeffrey then read different passages for about 10-15 minutes before it was opened up to audience questions.

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What’s something that you’ve written that you weren’t all that happy with? Something you finished that you thought could have been better if you did something different.

JC: Everything?

JF: Generally, I don’t think we put things out if we’re not happy with it. We’re working with deadlines, but we still have to stand by everything we put out for as long as it’s out. I wouldn’t rush something or put out something I think was bad. I think there are things that could have been written better because I’m a human being and extremely fallible. There’s probably some clumsy writing or prose, but if there’s something that doesn’t work, I get rid of it until I can make it work better.

There’s an episode called Triptych that delves into the history of Kevin from Desert Bluffs and I wrote that for a live show. Usually the scenes are used as comic relief. They’re fast paced and funny. For some reason, I decided to do an extremely long, 3 part delve into the sad history of a character. It was the length of the quarter of a live show and I showed it to Jeffrey and he was like “I don’t think we can do that.” So he wrote a shorter, funnier version of Sports.

How do you pick the weather? And before, I know you used to invite people to submit their music for the weather and now you don’t. What have you learned from that process?

JC: We have a really complex process for picking the weather which is “here’s this song I like.” Some of it comes from getting permission from people. There are songs we really want to use, so you write the artist and ask to use it.

JF: And Beyonce doesn’t respond

JC: Yeah, Beyonce doesn’t respond but you decide to send it again because maybe she didn’t see it.

JF: Come on, Bey.

JC: When did we open it up?

JF: In August of 2014 we put a call out. We were letting submissions trickle in until the audience exploded. In August we had it open for only a couple of weeks and got over 4000 songs. It was only me and I personally listed to every one of them.

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Why did you decide to put Joseph first?

JC: Alphabetical? From the get go, it was how we did it on the podcast. It was just how Meg said it in the credits and how it was said at the live shows. We talked about it when were about to publish the novel because it’s standard in publishing to put it alphabetical. I didn’t really care. It made sense to keep it the way it always was.

JF: At the time, we had just written that play and it was credited to Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink and we were going to take turns. And then it blew up.

JC: I also have no ego about it. One of the weird thing is that if you see a multiple author thing, like for Welcome To Night Vale it says author “Joseph Fink and one other”. My name takes up the same amount of space.

In some episodes you’ll make a mention of something or a joke and then months later, you’ll mention it again. How far in advance do you write or schedule it?

JF: Kinda of neither of those options. The best way to have a continuity that seems to stretch is the work backwards and that’s what we do. We wrote that thing 3 years ago and had no plans to do anything with it. We’re always building a story forward and we want to build it on what we already have. I’m constantly rereading and seeing where characters have been. It’s sort of digging into the crannies of what you’ve already written and making things more complex.

What are some of the source materials you’ve used? Were there conversations about “let’s do something like this, but not this”?

JC: We’ve never had a conversation about what we wanted to go for. Joseph wrote the pilot and had Cecil record it and put John’s music under it. Then sent it to me and asked if it was something I wanted to work on. I said sure and then we just started writing. We sort of used the pilot episode as the thing we were going for. When I first heard it, it was unlike anything I had ever heard. It does harken back to things like Twin Peaks, The Adventures of Pete and Pete or Eerie, Indiana.

I was an addict of Alice in Wonderland, both the Disney movie and the book. I read the book so many times and the way those stories immerse you in the world. Alice is always remarking about how absurd and strange the world is. It doesn’t seem like alarm, just that she’s providing a brief observation and I like that that is sort of what Night Vale does.

Now that we’ve written 90-something episodes, we’re writing to service the characters and the on going story. Sometimes there will be a strange performance art or a book of poetry and there’s some imagery that I want to work into Night Vale, so there’s also things like that.

When it comes to creating characters, is it from something that’s happened or do they just kind of appear on their own?

JF: I think the initial idea is for them to service the story or a joke. Michelle Nguyen, owner of Dark Owl Records was a one line joke at first. We never base characters on anyone, but you do have to think of them as human beings and how you would react to things. You sort of project yourself into them.

JC: I don’t often pull characters from parts of my life. It’s interesting to go back and read and see that you’ve modeled something. It happens subconsciously.

There was one other question, but it didn’t pick up very well, so I’m not going to try and figure it out. From there everyone was lined up in numerical ticket order. I thanked Jeffrey and Joseph and they started signing my books. Jeffrey then asked if I would sign his copy because he was having all of the moderators from the tour sign.

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After my books were done, I went through the line flapping books and giving post-it’s. And once that was complete, I made my rounds, saying goodbye to the MG staff before leaving.

This entire experience was a huge deal for me and easily one of the biggest opportunities I’ve had so far. It was awesome to be asked to moderate. Jeffrey and Joseph are friendly and so much fun. If you haven’t listened to Welcome to Night Vale, you really need to.

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8 Responses to “The time it was about Welcome to Night Vale”

  1. I’m thrilled you were given the opportunity to do something like this, especially considering how psyched/anxious were behind the scenes. I know it meant a lot to you and you deserve those kinds of moments. Also, due to how much you’ve flailed about this, maybe I should give this podcast a go!

    Thanks for sharing your special night with us! (Especially because it’s soooo long. *cough*TWSS*cough*)

    IWLYMHFMHFTSTTMFSFMH!

    Christina2227 recently posted: {ARC REVIEW} This Adventure Ends by Emma Mills
    • Stacee

      Thank you, lovely!! And YES I think everyone need to listen to the podcast. It’s quite hilarious.

      IWFLYMHFFTSTTMFS

  2. Sadly, I am still at only 20 episodes *hangs head* I need to figure out a way to start listening regularly, like X amount of episodes on Y day. I need to listen to the podcast of the guy telling a boring story in a gentle voice when I wake up at 3:30 in the morning and can’t get back yo sleep. Ha ha. I loved this, Stacee, thanks for transcribing such a long discussion! I am glad you got to do this. :)

    La La in the Library recently posted: TELL ME TUESDAY #113
    • Stacee

      I finally got current and now I don’t know what to do with myself, so I just started back at the beginning. I hope you enjoy the upcoming episodes!!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!!

  3. Glad you finally got on board! Welcome!….to Nightvale (dun dun dun dun). But in all seriousness, aside from loving the podcast for years, the Nightvale novel was quite literally one of the best books I have ever read. Fink and Cranor are some seriously under-appreciated literary geniuses of our age. Congratulations on getting to host this!

    • Stacee

      I still need to read the novel, but I loved reading the episode books and seeing some behind the scenes stuff. I’m sufficiently obsessed now, I’m currently on my second round of listening.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!!

    • Stacee

      This was probably the biggest thing I’ve done in my blogging career. I was trying so hard not to lose my mind.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!!

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