13 Questions for Welcome to Night Vale Co-Creator Joseph Fink

While Serial may have cornered the market on true-crime audio, nobody owns serialized fiction podcasts like the paranormal horror-comedy Welcome to Night Vale.

Started in 2012 by writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, Night Vale’s popularity has spawned cross-country tours, a best-selling novel, and Night Vale Presents, a network launched to support other new, independent podcasts from first-time podcasters. 

This month, the first Night Vale Presents project, Alice Isn’t Dead, arrived to positive reviews. Penned by Fink, the strange, foreboding tale follows a woman in search of the wife she once presumed dead. 

This week, I spoke to Fink about the podcast, which will post new episodes biweekly through July 12. In April and July, Fink and Cranor will tour the country with a new Night Vale live show.

1. How do you describe Alice Isn’t Dead to those who haven’t heard it—or Welcome to Night Vale, for that matter?

Fink: It’s a serial fiction podcast [about] a truck driver searching for her wife who she thought was dead. It uses real experiences of traveling through America; every drive she takes in each episode is a drive you could actually take, and a lot of what she sees is [what] I actually saw driving around the country. It mixes that with sort of weird fiction and horror elements. 

2. This podcast kind of popped up without much warning. What kind of reaction to it have you gotten so far? 

We had a nice amount of listeners for a brand new show, which is great. It’s been a little nerve-wracking, because, ultimately, this was just a little side project I was working on. But overwhelmingly, people seem to like it, [and] that’s the goal.

3. How long had the idea for Alice Isn’t Deadbeen cooking? And is the whole story complete, or are you still in the process of writing it?

It started up somewhere touring around the country with the Night Vale live show. I would guess that I’ve been playing around with the idea for at least a year.

Yeah, I’m still writing scripts. I have the whole story mapped out, but given the number of overlapping writing deadlines I have, I don’t tend to write stuff until I actually need to write it. [Laughs]

4. The podcast is performed by Jasika Nicole. How did you find her, and what made you think she was the right person for the job?

Kevin [R. Free], who is a voice on Night Vale, is good friends with her, and then Jeffrey [Cranor] has been friends with her for quite a while. Really early on in Night Vale, she did a show with us in L.A., and I wrote a monologue for her. As far as I know, she saw it for the first time right before the show, and then she walked out on stage and just really nailed it. It was a beautiful performance.

The moment I saw that happen, I knew I wanted to keep writing stuff for her. So even before this project had a title or even much of a plot outline, I knew I wanted Jasika to be the voice.

5. Will she be the only voice we hear on the series?

Yeah, I don’t want to comment on that yet. 

6. I figured, but it couldn’t hurt to ask. As I’m sure you’ve been told, your work is very descriptive and cinematic. Have you been approached to adapt it for the screen, or do you have any interest in doing that?

When Night Vale first blew up, what we had then was “Popular Internet Thing.” And when you have Popular Internet Thing—it doesn’t really matter what it is—you will get approached by pretty much everyone being like, “Can I buy Popular Internet Thing from you?”

But from the start, we were interested in doing things that a) We can be involved in, because it’s our thing, and we’re not really interested in just selling off the name; and that b) We can do in a way that we feel is worthwhile to fans. We don’t want to put out stuff that we can’t stand behind. 

So that’s why a book made a lot of sense, because we’re writers, and we can stand behind that book as something that is worth reading. We’re not entirely opposed to movie and television stuff, it’s just gonna take a lot longer to figure out how that would work and make sure that it’s something worth doing.

7. Are you working on any other side projects at the moment?

I mean, not that I want to tell you about, just because it’s never a good idea to start talking about stuff … There’s a reason that we didn’t announce Alice until it was pretty much completely ready to go. You’re never doing yourself a favor by announcing stuff that is still in the planning stages.

When you’re a writer, you constantly have ideas, and mostly you have to have the self-awareness to know you’re just not gonna have time to do most of them. There’s other stuff I’m vaguely working on, but … I have a lot of deadlines right now, so it could be quite a while before I have time to really devote any real energy to making other stuff come alive.

8. What are you reading these days?

I think I have it down to three books right now: I’m reading The Incarnations by Susan Barker. It’s about a cab driver in Beijing right before the Olympics who starts receiving letters from somebody who claims to have known him in many previous lives. I’m reading Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon. And before going to bed, I’m reading Pacific by Simon Winchester, which [has] essays about modern history in and around the Pacific Ocean.

9. Do you listen to any podcasts?

[Laughs] I listen to about 30 different podcasts. We got into Night Vale because we love podcasting. And [that’s] the reason we’re doing Alice Isn’t Dead and also launching Night Vale Presents, in which the idea is to keep launching new podcasts. Jeffrey [Cranor] is right now working on his own fiction serial podcast with the novelist Janina Matthewson that we’re hoping to launch in late spring, early summer.

We are also working with a number of artists who haven’t worked in podcasting before but who we think could do good things. A lot of what we’re doing is because we really love podcasting as a medium, and we want to keep seeing new things happen there.

10. What shows do you listen to? There are some podcasts now that seem very influenced by Night Vale.

In terms of fiction podcasts, really the only one I think I listen to is The Black Tapes. Other than that, I listen to a lot of 99% Invisible, You Must Remember This, The Worst Idea of All Time …. I love that one, because it’s on the border between a podcast and performance art. 

11. Can you tease us about upcoming episodes of Alice Isn’t Dead?

I can tell you that there is a story planned out for the first year of the show—10 episodes have a very planned-out arc—but also that, hopefully, given listener interest and [our] time, there will be more years. I already have ideas of where the story would go. 

12. Would you tour with Alice, similarly to what you’ve done with Night Vale?

We all come out of live theater, which is why putting together a live show is natural for us. So yeah, if we wanted to put together a live show, we could do it, but I don’t know if we’re going to. We have to keep an eye on making sure that we’re always leaving enough time [so] everything we’re trying to do is done right.

13. You work on so much at once. Do you have any tips for how to balance all of those deadlines without losing your mind?

There are a couple things: One is we’ve been told that we write very quickly. For years, we’ve either worked in theater that has a fast turnaround or on a podcast in which we have to put out two scripts a month, so we’ve just gotten very used to getting through the deadlines we have.

The other thing is, I spend most of my time working. I have this house in the country, and I don’t really take days off or go out much; I mostly just work. It’s not something I’m probably going to keep up forever, but at my age, it seems like, “Why not?” 

To read more of Whitney Matheson’s podcast recommendations and interviews with notable podcasters, head to the archive.

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15 Podcasts That Will Make You Feel Smarter
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It's easy to feel overwhelmed by all the podcast options out there, but narrowing down your choices to the titles that will teach you something while you listen is a good place to start. If you're interested in learning more about philosophy, science, linguistics, or history, here are podcasts to add to your queue.

1. THE HABITAT

The Habitat is the closest you can get to listening to a podcast recorded on Mars. At the start of the series, five strangers enter a dome in a remote part of Hawaii meant to simulate a future Mars habitat. Every part of their lives over the next year, from the food they eat to the spacesuits they wear when they step outside, is designed to mimic the conditions astronauts will face if they ever reach the red planet. The experiment was a way for NASA to test plans for a manned mission to Mars without leaving Earth. The podcast, which is produced by Gimlet media and hosted by science writer Lynn Levy, ends up unfolding like a season of the Real World with a science fiction twist.

2. STUFF YOU SHOULD KNOW

Can’t pick a topic to educate yourself on? Stuff You Should Know from How Stuff Works is the podcast for you. In past episodes, hosts Chuck Bryant and Josh Clark (both writers at How Stuff Works) have discussed narwhals, Frida Kahlo, LSD, Pompeii, hoarding, and Ponzi schemes. And with three episodes released a week, you won’t go long without learning about a new subject.

3. THE ALLUSIONIST

Language nerds will find a kindred spirit in Helen Zaltzman. In each episode of her Radiotopia podcast The Allusionist, the former student of Latin, French, and Old English guides listeners through the exciting world of linguistics. Past topics include swearing, small talk, and the differences between British and American English.

4. PHILOSOPHIZE THIS!

Listening to all of Philosophize This! is cheaper than taking a philosophy class—and likely more entertaining. In each episode, host Stephen West covers different thinkers and ideas from philosophy history in an approachable and informative way. The show proceeds in chronological order, starting with the pre-Socratic era and leading up most recently to Jacques Derrida.

5. MORE PERFECT

In 2016, Radiolab, one of the most popular and well-established educational podcasts out there, launched a show called More Perfect. Led by Radiolab host Jad Abumrad, each episode visits a different Supreme Court case or event that helped shape the highest court in the land. Because of that, the podcast ends up being about a lot more than just the Supreme Court, exploring topics like police brutality, gender equality, and free speech online.

6. SLOW BURN

The Watergate scandal was such a important chapter in American history that it has its own suffix—but when asked to summarize the events, many people may draw a blank. Slow Burn, a podcast from Slate, gives listeners a refresher. In eight episodes, host Leon Neyfakh tells the story of the Nixon’s demise as it unfolded, all while asking whether or not citizens would be able to recognize a Watergate-sized scandal if it happened today.

7. LETTERS FROM WAR

Instead of using a broad scope to examine World War II, the Washington Post podcast Letters From War focuses on hundreds of letters exchanged by four brothers fighting in the Pacific during the period. Living U.S. military veterans tell the sibling's story while reflecting on their own experiences with war.

8. LEVAR BURTON READS

Just because you’re a grown-up doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the soothing sound of LeVar Burton’s voice reading to you. The former host of Reading Rainbow now hosts LeVar Burton Reads, a podcast from Stitcher aimed at adults. In each episode, he picks a different piece of short fiction to narrate: Just settle into a comfortable spot and listen to him tell stories by authors like Haruki Murakami, Octavia Butler, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

9. BRAINS ON!

Brains On! is an educational podcast for young audiences, but adults have something to gain from listening as well. Every week, host Molly Bloom is joined by a new kid co-host who helps her explore a different topic. Tune in for answers to questions like "What makes paint stick?" and "How do animals breathe underwater?"

10. SCIENCE VS

There’s a lot of misinformation out there—if you’re determined to sort out fact from fiction, it can be hard to know where to start. The team of “friendly fact checkers” at the Science Vs podcast from Gimlet is here to help. GMOs, meditation, birth control, Bigfoot—these are just a few of the topics that are touched upon in the weekly show. The goal of each episode is to replace any preconceived notions you have with hard science.

11. FLASH FORWARD

No one knows for sure what the future holds, but Flash Forward lays out the more interesting possibilities. Some of the potential futures that host and producer Rose Eveleth explores are more probable than others (a future where no one knows which news sources to trust isn’t hard to imagine; one where space pirates drag a second moon into orbit perhaps is), but each one is built on real science.

12. HIDDEN BRAIN

What motivates the everyday choices we make? That’s the question Shankar Vedantam tries to answer on the NPR podcast Hidden Brain. The show looks at how various unconscious patterns shape our lives, like what we wear and who we choose to spend time with.

13. PART-TIME GENIUS

The fact that it’s hosted by Mental Floss founders Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur isn’t the only reason we love Part-Time Genius. The podcast from How Stuff Works wades into topics you didn’t know you were curious about, like the origins of Nickelodeon and the hidden secrets at the Vatican. Each episode will leave you feeling educated and entertained at the same time.

14. ASTRONOMY CAST

It’s a big universe out there—if you want to learn as much about it as possible, start with Astronomy Cast. Fraser Cain, publisher of the popular site Universe Today, and Dr. Pamela L. Gay, director of the virtual research facility CosmoQuest, host the podcast. They cover a wide range of topics, from the animals we’ve sent to orbit to the color of the universe.

15. SCIENCE OF HAPPINESS

The Science of Happiness podcast from PRI is here to improve your life, one 20-minute episode at a time. Science has proven that adopting certain practices, like mindfulness and gratitude, can make us happier—as does letting go of less unhealthy patterns like grudges and stressful thinking. With award-winning professor Dacher Keltner as your host, you can learn how to incorporate these science-backed strategies for happiness into your own life.

S-Town Podcast Is Being Turned Into a Movie

S-Town, a seven-part podcast from Serial and This American Life, has all the trappings of a binge-worthy story. It all started when a man from the tiny town of Woodstock, Alabama asked a reporter to investigate a local man from a wealthy family who allegedly boasted he had gotten away with murder.

As for what happens next, “someone else ends up dead, sparking a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man's life,” reads the 2017 podcast’s synopsis, without giving too much away.

Now, that riveting story is being turned into a movie with This American Life’s participation, IndieWire reports. Participant Media acquired the rights to the S-Town podcast, and negotiations are underway to get playwright Samuel Hunter and director Tom McCarthy on board. McCarthy is perhaps best known for directing and co-writing 2015's Oscar-winning Spotlight; he also co-wrote Up and was an executive producer and director for the controversial Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.

S-Town was downloaded over 10 million times over a period of four days after its release, and it received a Peabody Award for the radio/podcast category, according to IndieWire. Just last month, HBO and Sky announced they would be releasing a documentary series about Adnan Syed, the focus of the first season of the Serial podcast, which is developed by This American Life.

In case you missed S-Town when it premiered, you can go back and listen to it here.

[h/t IndieWire]

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