“Guns don’t kill people. It’s impossible to be killed by a gun; we are all invincible to bullets, and it’s a miracle!”
“I’ve stopped googling bees and I’ve started Googling your name over and over. I can’t find a trace of you anywhere.”
“Her demonstration of mass poisoning, unfortunately, went without a hitch.”
“Well I, for one, am excited to learn what these, of course, completely non-existent angels plan to do with the huge malevolent corporation they purchased.”
I have a bizarre sense of humor, but I’m not alone. Just ask Chicago’s Music Box Theater, which had at least 300 people sitting in one of its auditoriums last night to greet two men who have made me laugh, cry, think and have something to look forward to every other week.
“Welcome to Night Vale” podcast creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor stopped by the Windy City (“Chi-Vale”) for the second time this year, and I just so happened to have stalked their website on the right day to snag a ticket to the event. Their book, surprisingly titled “Welcome to Night Vale,” hit shelves on Tuesday as another way fans and newbies can visit the “friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep.”
For four years, Cranor and Fink have presented a half-hour community radio show twice a month that covers the goings-on in a town where it’s not strange for a lost civilization of tiny beings to be found under one of the lanes at the local bowling alley. Hosted by Cecil Palmer (voice by Cecil Baldwin of non-relation to the show biz brothers), the program tells a full story, broken up by sponsored messages — “Step into your nearest Subway restaurant today, and try their new 6-inch mashed potato sub. Top it with a delicious assortment of fresh vegetables, like french fries and Nutella. They’ll even toast or poach it for you.” — and traffic reports — “Oh! Wow! Well, that looks pretty good. Yup. Yes… okay, not too bad there either, I see. Oh, that gentleman needs to slow it down! It is not a race, my friend! Not a literal one, anyway. That has been traffic.”
The book takes place in the same setting but with two different characters: Jackie, a 19-year-old pawn shop owner, and Diane, a single mother raising a shape-shifting teenage boy. I haven’t read it yet but plan on devouring it next week like the “flesh-eating reading bacterium” consumes participants of Night Vale Library’s summer reading program.
The reason behind my rush to read and finish the book is because November 1 is the kickoff to National Novel Writing Month, an annual event that encourages people to write 50,000 words of a single project in 30 days. There won’t be much time for leisure reading because I’ll be participating this year and devoting any free time to getting a book’s worth of words out of my head and into a Word Doc.
Luckily, last night’s event with Cranor and Fink provided me — and other NaNoWriMo-bound audience members, as Night Vale’s uber-creative fanbase is riddled with writers — with some takeaways to kick off the month and provide inspiration as it goes. Here are 10 tips and thoughts that resonated with me as I listened to the two writers discuss their process when writing the scripts and book:
One: Don’t write with a demographic in mind. One of the audience members asked whether they realized their work would be particularly popular with the teenage Tumblr crowd (a major driver of the series’ explosion in 2013). Fink and Cranor said they never thought about who they were writing for — and it paid off. The auditorium was filled with young kids, older adults, straight and gay couples, none-of-my-friends-know-about-Night-Vale people, large groups and hair colors that matched every hue in Lisa Frank’s paintbox.
Two: Let sentences meander the way they want to go, but keep up with them. Both writers discussed their love of narrative structure that starts out ordinary and borderline cliche but turns dark, funny, weird or a combination thereof at the last minute. Case in point:
“Friends, listeners—there’s a real tarantula problem here in Night Vale. Many residents have called in to report that illiteracy, unwanted pregnancy and violent crime are on the rise in the tarantula communities. Animal control is addressing these concerns through after school programs called ‘Teach a Spider to Read. Stop the Madness.’ Those interesting in volunteering should stand in their bathtubs and weep until it is all gone. Nothing left.”
Three: Characters don’t have to be concrete to be vivid. As the podcast grew, so did host Cecil’s relationship with Carlos, the beautiful scientist with perfect hair who moves to Night Vale in the first season. Cranor and Fink said they didn’t plan on the coupling but were surprised and delighted when people commented that it was nice to finally have a gay main character who wasn’t identified by his sexuality. One of the audience members asked if Cecil, who’s always been rather gender-ambiguous, would ever be anything but. I held my breath for the answer — the creators are smart and very diversity-minded, but I always thought that about Matt Damon, too.
“Why can’t he just be ambiguous?” asked Fink to a round of applause. Cecil is a bold character without having a specific gender or sexual identity, and that’s part of the attraction of the show. We’re all Cecil in some ways because his curiosity, passion and humor is the focus, not who he loves or how he presents himself.
Before I go on, I’d like to mention that the project I’m about to work on has a narrator who is never identified as male or female — that’s why Fink’s comment affected me deeper than anything else said during the presentation. As Fink would say at the beginning of every podcast episode, “Hey…thanks.”
Four: If you’re 10 years old and start a story with “Death. Death is coming to us all,” you’re probably going to make a fine writer in your late 20s. Yes, fifth grader Joseph Fink just out-angsted high schooler Everyone Else.
Five: You need a plan, but it doesn’t need an ending. Someone asked whether the creators were aiming toward a goal, like a final episode or the book itself. They said they’ll keep doing it and keep it open-ended as long as they can. Sometimes success comes when there’s no definition of what success will look like.
As Cecil would say: “It will all be over soon. And then, something else will take its place.”