"I cannot live without books." -- Thomas Jefferson

Friday, September 2, 2016

Fanboys and Girls Rejoice! An Interview with Night Vale Creator Joseph Fink

This week, our Bookseller Ben S. spoke with one half of Night Vale creator team Joseph Fink. A fanboy through and through, Ben didn’t shy from going deep past the walls of Night Vale and asking extensive questions about their creative process. Please enjoy highlights from the interview below, and we hope to see you at our Welcome to Night Vale event Thursday, September 22nd at 8pm at the Regent Theatre!

Ben S:  I was curious about when you started. Did you have the idea of wanting it to become a podcast first? Or was it a story idea which evolved into the format?
Joseph Fink: No, the format came before the idea. I knew I wanted to make a podcast, and I knew I didn’t want it to be like any of the other podcasts out there because they already existed, and eventually I came up with the idea of Night Vale.
B: Very cool. We’re in a weird place where podcasting has now become the golden age of radio – the golden age of internet radio.
J: Podcasting is a wonderful thing because the barrier to entry is very low. In terms of what you need technically, you don’t need very much money to make a podcast that sounds on the same level as a professional podcast. I mean you do need a lot of time, and things like that, but the technical barrier is pretty small to be distributed at the exact same level and at the exact same channels, basically, as This American Life or, you know, WTF, or whatever.
B: And I think that’s true for both the makers and the listeners. It’s not that hard to get online to hear it, or to put your content out there.
J: Yeah. That’s an exciting thing.
B: Listening to [Night Vale], and then reading the book, there’s definitely a lot of influences in there. Are there any specific authors or stories or artists that you can cite as “this is kind of where I got some spirit behind it?”
J: Yeah. There are two we kind of point to for the language, usually. There’s a third that it’s less about the language and more about content – and that’s Thomas Pynchon. Thomas Pynchon, in all of his books, creates these huge, meaningless conspiracies that go nowhere and mean nothing and kind of exist as a stand-in for the chaotic randomness of life. I think, I learned a lot about writing complicated, fake conspiracies from reading Thomas Pynchon.
In terms of language, the two we point to are the novelist Deb Olin Unferth. She wrote a book called Vacation, that I read when I was twenty-two. I just picked it up because it had a cool cover and it blew me away. It was just one of those moments where you realize, ‘Oh.’ Even after years, even after pretty much since I understood what writing meant, working on getting better at writing,  I was like  I’m nowhere near good enough. I need to learn how to do this. She was just doing things with language that I’d never seen anyone do before. I knew I had to learn how to do it.
The playwright Will Eno is the other one. He’s a, I believe, Massachusetts-based playwright. He writes these sentences where the – there are surprises even within the sentences – the sentences will land in places you didn’t even see them, at the start of the sentence. I’ve seen a bunch of his plays at this point. Jeffrey was a big fan of his, and he introduced me to him. I would say that if you took -  especially the early episodes - the language of Deb Olin Unferth, and the language of Will Eno, and combined them, that was pretty much the voice of Night Vale we were working with.
B: Very interesting, very interesting. Alright so also—going off the uniqueness of the show—I’m a big fan of all the different characters. My personal favorites are Leanne Hart and Pamela Winchell because I’m a little afraid of them. Are there any [smaller characters] that have brought weird, gleeful joy to you? I mean, you don’t have to pick a favorite child, but is there anybody?
J: Ahhh, I mean. In a lot of ways, like if a small character is interesting to us, they’re not a small character anymore. We have the power to sort of bring anyone to the forefront. So Steve Carlsberg was a minor character until he became interesting to us. Michelle Wynn, the owner of Dark Owl Records, I think was very, you know, kind of a one-joke character, one line of the script, and then we got interested in her and now there are several, kind of, scenes from her point of view.
B: Yeah, she had the September monologue.
J: Yeah, I mean, and then Kate Jones has been in a number of the live shows and we’ve written a number of live scenes for Michelle. It’s a lot of ways that if a character becomes interesting, they are no longer a side character. There are certain characters that have, I think, a lot more to them that we just haven’t gotten around to exploring...For the most part it’s like yeah there’s not a character that we haven’t featured that we wanted to feature because the joy of this is that we can do whatever we want with the story.
B: Well,  speaking of the freedom to do what you want, one of the things that I really appreciate – both in the novel and in the podcast –is that it’s very inclusive because you don’t have to feel like you have to cater to the generic –we’re out here in Hollywood, so we get a lot of that straight white-dude bias—and I really appreciate that there’s a lot of variety and representation in Night Vale. Is that a thing you guys set out to do from the beginning?
J: I think it came mostly from trying to write honestly about the world. The thing about the world is that it’s full of all sorts of kinds of people. If you write about the world in such a way that there’s only a few types of people you’re not writing about the world. You’re writing about TV shows you’ve seen and books you’ve seen. You’re just kind of regurgitating what has been given to you. You’re not actually trying to write honestly about what you’ve seen. Jeffrey and I, we lived in New York City.  We’ve interacted with people of the downtown New York theater scene. If we made everyone in Night Vale straight white people then that would be us denying the world we lived in. The only way to write honestly about the world was to make a world as diverse as the world actually is.
B: I’m sure a lot of fans are interested in hearing that you guys were coming out with more material. Was it mostly coming from a place of something more that you wanted to talk about that you felt like you couldn’t really get out in Night Vale?
J: No. It’s more just experimenting with different types of storytelling. Our first new show, Alice Isn’t Dead was something I wrote. We’ve been doing this touring live show of Night Vale. I think after this next tour we’ll have done over two hundred shows and 16 countries. So we have just travelled a lot and have spent a lot of time in vans and so forming a story, shaping a story in the form of a road trip was interesting to me.
The thing about Night Vale is that there’s a certain tone to it that includes comedy. I was kind of interested in writing a story that was one hundred percent horror with very little comedy. That was what Alice was. And then Jeffery had this idea that was found audio from alternate universes—specifically relaxation tapes from alternate universes—which turned into Within the Wires. He read a novel by a woman  named Janina Matthewson called A Thing Gone Astray and absolutely loved it and then we ended up meeting her in London and he asked her to write the show with him.
It’s been this way of just experimenting with different types of storytelling. And then the third show, kind of moves into our bigger goal which is trying to get artists that we think do really good work that aren’t in podcasting at the moment and bring them into podcasting. This next show, creatively, Jeffery or I are not involved at all. It’s some people that we think do really great work that have not worked in podcasting before. We want to bring them into that world.
B: So we have an event coming up with you this month. What can we expect from you guys at our event here at The Regent? I always expect good costumes from the fans, I’m probably going to be in a costume too. I was wondering if you guys were bringing anything new, besides the books, obviously.
J: I mean, we’re bringing ourselves. We’re bringing Kate, who is just a delightful, fascinating person. We always enjoy spending time with Kate and I think the audience will too even if they don’t know her. Or if they do, they’ll be even more excited. I think she’s doing really interesting work. It’s going to be us talking about writing and about Night Vale.
B: I feel the more I listen, the more the world of Night Vale kind of infiltrated my real world -  I’ve had a lot of weird things [happen to me] walking around here in Los Angeles. Have you ever had anything odd happen to you since you’ve switched to this frame of mind where – strange town, weird things happening, we all just kind of walk about it?
J: Well. It’s weird that you should say that. I ordered something from Amazon a couple days ago and it showed up just this afternoon in an envelop. And I opened up the envelop and the envelop was full of ants. You know those big black ants, carpenter ants or whatever, just swarming.
B: I’m sorry to hear that.
J: Well. Amazon.com sent me just an envelope full of ants.
B: Did you order ants?
J: I did not.
B: We kind of touched on this before, but we’re in a very interesting time for creators. You know before podcasting was a thing, YouTube became a thing. People who are creative, with the advent of the internet, we can kind of get out there. I know you’re reaching out with the network to bring people who aren’t doing podcasting to podcasting.
Would you have any advice on what to do when they’re just starting out? How to get them over the hump and maybe start getting out there getting their art out?
J: I think the best thing you can do is make it and make it in a way that is enjoyable to you, which is to say work with other people. I think working with other people forces you to work. It puts you in a situation that you could disappoint other people. If you’re like most of us you will have no problem disappointing yourself, but if you tell someone else you’re going to do something you’ll feel bad about disappointing them. So it sort of forces you to stay on track and keep making a thing.
Also work with people you enjoy working with. Succeeding, in a way of popularity, or commercially succeeding, is such a weird luck thing. There’s not really a step-by-step guide to that. So the best thing that you could do is make something that is good. That you know is good, that you can stand behind as good. And make it with people you really enjoy. Because then, the worst case scenario is that you’re making something really good with people that you enjoy working with.
I think that if no one had ever really started listening to Night Vale, that if it still only had a few thousand downloads per episode, we’d probably still be making it because we enjoy making it interesting to us. That’s really the best thing you could hope for. If anything else happens that is a wonderful piece of luck that often has very little to do with anything you did.

Our September Pick for (Book) Soup of the Month is Delicious Foods by James Hannaham!

There are many ways in which one could categorize James Hannaham’s Delicious Foods. It’s a modern slave narrative, and a frightening one to be sure. It’s a comment on the present state of race relations and economic disenfranchisement in America. It’s a hero’s origin story, one in which the hero spends most of his time in the underworld and comes away from it more than a little scarred. Its title is even suggestive of the heroic mythology: if you eat the fruit of the underworld, you won't leave it unscathed. While Delicious Foods is all of these familiar things, it harnesses these attributes and emerges as a strikingly original, emotionally jolting and exquisitely written novel.

Our heroes, impoverished African American mother and son Darlene and Eddie Hardison, each are grappling with their respective handicaps right from the start. Eddie's physical handicap, introduced in the novel's introduction, remains a mystery until much later; we're confronted by Darlene's right away. A college-educated woman still devastated by survivor's guilt over her husband's lynching and trapped in dead-end work, Darlene has started to walk the street, hustling for johns to support both her young son and a just-barely-functional dependence on crack cocaine.

Right from the get-go, we meet “Scotty,” the literal personification of crack. Every other chapter is presented with Scotty’s sassy, serpentine narration as he (or she, or it) relates the story, interjecting "Bye, Felicia"-style sparklers that up the humor of many seedier passages, but also hammer home the grit:

 “Get out there! I said. Ain’t nothing shameful ’bout trying to survive, bitch. Don’t you know the street always got a answer?”

Very soon, the street does seem to present an answer: One night, Darlene is approached about a job that will pay well and house and feed her. Before she can fully comprehend what’s happening, Darlene signs her rights away and is transported to her place of employment. Far from being a heaven-sent opportunity, the employer, Delicious Foods, operates nefariously, to say the least, fostering its employees' existing drug habit to keep them docile, all the while subjecting them to sub-standard working and living conditions and garnished wages. Constant threats of swift and arbitrary punishment for any infraction hang in the air like a flock of grackles. Darlene plans to call her son as soon as possible to let him know her whereabouts, but she’s denied access to a phone on the first night. Then the hours turn into days, then into weeks. 

When Eddie finally tracks his mother down and joins the Delicious workforce himself, the company's management takes note of his natural tendencies towards leadership and his ability to seemingly mend anything broken. Soon, even Eddie finds himself stuck in the vortex of a cruel system balances occasional rewards and constant depravation. It’s equally unclear if Darlene will ever quite be ready to break up with Scotty and, by extension, the new normal she has made for herself at Delicious Foods.

From its kinetic opening chapter to its gruesome denouement and cathartic finale, Hannaham never fails to surprise the reader with intriguing, but believable, twists and turns, narrative curveballs that ratchet up the tension but never seem implausible. However grim or hopeless the situations in Delicious Foods seem to get, Hannaham's elegantly composed chapters and painterly prose never leave the reader wanting for moments of beauty or the promise of salvation. 

For such a brutal and sweeping work, the word "sensitive" also comes to mind when discussing Delicious Foods. Hannaham's depiction of addiction, both shocking and relatable, makes Darlene's descent into Scotty's clutches, and the clutches of Delicious, all the more understandable. Add to this a lineup of characters that, in less capable hands, would come off as cartoonish: the small town curmudgeon named Sparkplug, the alcoholic bum named Tuckahoe Joe, local hookers named Giggles, Fatback and Kim Ono. Here, all are rendered with a vivid immediacy that makes them authentic, knowable, existing in a place beyond the traditional stock character. I was on the alert for ham-fisted passages, for contrived secondary characters with goofy names, and for preachy or didactic asides about addiction or poverty. By the final pages, my fears were still unmerited.

No single encapsulation really does justice to Delicious Foods. When I describe it to friends and customers, I usually say that it's a bit like The Wire, only it’s more Southern, more rural, more surreal. It feels at once rooted in the present conversation about racial and economic inequality, and, at the same time, effortlessly timeless. It’s reminiscent of, and compares favorably, to great works like Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus. Yet, for all its familiar aspects, Delicious Foods remains truly unlike anything I’ve ever read.
- Kieran, Book Soup Bookseller