In the fictional Southwestern desert town of Night Vale, weird is normal, and dark conspiracies are a way of life. Everyone is willfully ambiguous.
Diane, mother to a misfit shape-shifting teenager, is so used to him morphing into fantastic creatures that she barely gives him a second glance when he turns into a cloud of bats. (“ ‘Please stop shrieking and swarming into the cupboards,’ she would say. It was important to set boundaries.”)
Jackie, proprietor of the local pawnshop, where every item costs $11, has been 19 years old as long as she can remember. Clocks and calendars don’t work in Night Vale. Her routine, surreal existence goes topsy-turvy when a stranger in a tan jacket with a deerskin suitcase whom everyone has seen but no one can remember anything about hands her a note consisting of two words: KING CITY.
You might think that the pair of off-center minds behind this bizarre microcosm — first a podcast, now a book that’s out Tuesday — would belong to wild-haired outcasts who mumble to themselves on city sidewalks, casting vaguely threatening glances at wary passersby.
But no. Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor are a couple of genial, apparently sane guys who will appear at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul on Oct. 25 to discuss “Welcome to Night Vale” for the Talking Volumes author series, produced by the Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio in collaboration with the Loft Literary Center. (Click here for ticket information.)
Both were raised in sprawling suburbia. Both are blessed with fresh, nearly cherubic faces despite being prone to unnerving mental voyages. They just happen to be more imaginative than most of their peers. A lot more.
They’ve managed to concoct the nearly impossible in an era of few new ideas — an addictive fictional world that’s not only truly original, but signals an interesting new direction for spinoff pop lit, one whose fiercely loyal core audience sprang up practically overnight from social media, fueled by a sense of pride in discovery.
“The Weirdtown, USA thing has been going on for a long time, so it’s hard to be totally original,” Cranor said. “ ‘Night Vale’ has a sense of humor similar to the Onion. It presents mundanity in an absurd way or absurdity in a mundane way.”
With central character Cecil Palmer (actor Cecil Baldwin), who relays the news of Night Vale via a biweekly radio broadcast, and guest stars in tow, Cranor and Fink have put on more than 150 live shows in 11 countries, soon to add Australia and New Zealand. They recently passed a download milestone of 100 million.
What started as a quirky way to satisfy a writing jones has become a full-time profession for both.
Suburbia to surrealism
Strolling into the French Roast cafe in Manhattan’s West Village, Cranor, 40, and Fink, 29, look like they could be slightly hip accountants or Apple store managers or what they are — writers. Over coffee and toast, nothing too fancy, they reflected on their casually begun, fateful partnership and “Night Vale’s” trajectory.
Cranor grew up in suburban Dallas, Fink outside of Los Angeles. An interest in the stage drew both to New York City several years ago, where they met working with an aptly named downtown theater company, the New York Neo-Futurists.
After co-writing and performing the play “What the Time Traveler Will Tell Us” in the East Village, they decided to try a podcast.
As fans of such early podcast successes as “This American Life” and “Comedy Bang! Bang!” they wanted to avoid anything that had been done, so they turned to serial fiction.
After getting fired from a customer-service job at a credit card company, Fink wrote the “Welcome to Night Vale” pilot, released in June 2012. He set it in the desert Southwest “because if you’re talking about conspiracies in the United States, that’s where they live. I kind of grew up not that far away. Southern California is a desert with stolen water lightly sprinkled on it.”
Then came a happy lesson in the capriciousness of online culture. The podcast began picking up fans with lots of social media followers, including actor Wil Wheaton and musician John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats. After chatter about it reached a Tumblr tipping point, downloads spiked and a star was born. In July 2013, “Night Vale” even beat out Ira Glass — Supreme Ruler of the Pods for “This American Life” — as the No. 1 podcast download from iTunes.
“We were still working our day jobs and people were talking about our home hobby like it was this big TV show,” Fink said.
Podcast to prosperity
As “Night Vale’s” momentum continues, “podcast to merchandise to live show to book” might become a new profit path for publishers. The built-in international online audience no doubt reserved its copies some time ago.
“The real fans are from all over, but they’re a tight community,” Cranor said. “They feel protective of this thing they helped create. It’s a sense of ownership you can’t feel with ‘The Avengers’ because that’s Marvel Studios, and it’s been around as a comic book for 50 years.”
Cranor and Fink have a simpatico working style, generally alternating episodes and making suggestions on each other’s scripts.
Minneapolis singer Dessa, who has toured with the “Night Vale” crew and will do so again, calls the guys “goofy, supportive and sweet.”
The secret to the appeal of “Night Vale,” she said, is that “Joseph and Jeffrey have developed this pitch-perfect small-town tone — part bureaucratic, part provincial — and they manage to establish and defy listeners’ expectations in the span of a few seconds. My favorite part of the podcasts, and now the book, happens at the sentence level. They work right up to the edge of nonsense, but manage to stay in the absurd.”
Seeing as the event is being held at the Fitzgerald Theater, home to Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, comparisons to the radio-show small-town prototype might be tempting. But the two are apples and oranges, or in this case, apples and toxic glowing mushrooms planted by the feds.
“I ran into Keillor once at a salad bar near here, but we hadn’t started writing ‘Night Vale’ yet so I didn’t say anything,” Cranor recalled.
Since a big part of “Night Vale” ’s draw is that only the cool kids get it, is there a danger in getting too popular?
“Its fans do have an intense burning fire,” Cranor said. “But I think ‘Night Vale’ has room to grow.”
Just don’t make it some huge city.
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046