Your Halloween options are endless. You could go out to one of the thousand parties happening all around the city. You could venture out into Maryland or Virginia and go to an old fashioned haunted house. And you can always spend the night alone with the curtains drawn and some candles lit and a classic horror movie. But if you’re a lover of strange, unknowable things, someone who basks in the unmentionable horrors of the world, there’s really only one place that fits the bill on Halloween night.
Joseph Fink, creator of Welcome to Night Vale and I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats is popping into Politics and Prose to talk about his latest project, the novelization of his podcast Alice Isn’t Dead. As a complete retelling, the novel keeps the same Lovecraftian road-trip-gone-wrong imagery the podcast does so well and expands upon it, deepening the conspiracies and Twilight Zone-esque stories.
To prepare you for Fink’s book talk (which will include a chat with Petra Mayer of NPR Books) we called him up to talk about horror movies, gas station snacks and his favorite road trip memories.
You’re going to be at Politics and Prose on Halloween, what’s your Halloween costume plan?
I don’t know. Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. Both of my favorite holidays are fall holidays, for some reason, my favorite holidays growing up were Halloween and Sukkot. I’ve been on tour every Halloween for the last several years, I never get to be home on Halloween. Last year we were on a book tour and I dressed up as the bad guy from Alice Isn’t Dead, so I guess I could do that again, or I could try and figure out something else. It’s hard because on book tours you’re living out a carry-on.
When did you decide you wanted to write an Alice Isn’t Dead novel?
I don’t really remember. I love writing novels, it’s kind of the thing I always wanted to do since I was little. So any opportunity I have to write one, I’ll take it. The story is pretty set up to a novel. It’s a self contained story, even the format of the podcast itself was intentionally novelistic and set in chapters and parts. It just seemed like an easy transition and Harper seemed excited to do that. When you’re a writer and you want to write something and a publisher wants to publish it, that’s an opportunity you don’t walk away from.
Sounds like a good situation to be in. I’ve been listening to the podcast while I read the novel (which has been fun). How did you know what you were going to change in the book? How did you decided which scenes and ideas you wanted to expand on? How did you see the novel growing past the podcast?
Two things, one is, this is the same approach we had with the Welcome to Night Vale novels. On an artistic level, it would be really boring for us just to repeat what we’ve done in a podcast. That’s not interesting at all. With Welcome to Night Vale, it’s this whole world, so we were able to tell completely new stories. With Alice, it is itself a story, so I couldn’t completely change everything, but I knew that I didn’t just want to write out the podcast. That seemed boring for both me and the people who have listened to the show.
The other thing is that it’s really important to me that people can read this book who have never heard of the podcast and enjoy it. That it be entirely self contained. So I more or less approached it as its own thing. I didn’t consult the podcast that much. I tried to look at the broad outline of the story and figure out how it made sense and how it was most entertaining as a novel, without worrying too much about its relationship to the podcast. As a result, there’s a lot there that’s not in the podcast, but also the story starts going its own way at a certain point. For one thing, I wrote the final part of the novel before I wrote the final part of the podcast. So I wrote the final part of the novel while I wasn’t sure of all the details of the third part of the podcast. The third parts were developed separately.
Do you see one as more of a final story than the other or are they both different sides of the same coin?
They’re each their own thing.
What’s the scariest part of the country to you?
You know, I’ve mostly experienced the country going around with the Welcome Night Vale tour where we’re a group of… a lot of Jews. Most of our group is jewish, a lot of queer people, a lot of people of color, trans people. Our experience is always colored by how people treat our group. I can tell you, for instance, South Carolina is one of the most openly racist states I’ve ever been. It’s just kind of stunning to go to and see how little they try to hide that. It’s not super comfortable for Jews either. In Idaho, we stopped for lunch and as our group of folks got out of the van and started walking toward the restaurant, these four old white women in the window just turned and stared at us without talking. There’s just certain parts of the country where not being a white, straight, christian person is an uncomfortable experience.
I was thinking about that while reading / listening to Alice because you’re not shy when it comes to referencing that aspect of her road trip. When she sees the succession billboards… She’s traveling across the country dealing with problems that are very real to us (and also kind of paranormal). I think that’s something horror as a genre has problems with. It’s both the most conservative and least conservative genre at the same time. You get a lot of very fantastic non-male protagonists, but there’s also a lot of gross things when it comes to race and sex and religion. How do you fight horrors worst tendencies?
I’m going to say, as someone who is an unabashed fan of horror, that I don’t agree with your assessment of it. That assessment feels like it’s based on slasher movies of the 80s and 90s, but I think horror tackles real life better than most dramas. I think horror allows writers to look at how life feels, rather than how it looks. I think a lot of times horror feels more realistic than a lot of so called “realistic dramas.” It expresses how life feels, which is scary and unknowable. There’s so much in life that doesn’t make sense and frightens us, but it’s there and horror is about that. I think in the same way, similar to Sci-Fi, I think horror is one of the first genres to tackle difficult subjects long before the mainstream conscious.
Kiesha’s road trip in Alice is kind of a nightmare, kind of wonderful, kind of a nightmare, both sublime and mad. What would be your perfect road trip route?
I’ve driven all over this country, so I don’t really have a fantasy road trip because I’ve done them all. Growing up both of my parents were teachers, so we all had the summer off. I grew up in Southern California and we would drive up the coast of California up to Point Reyes, which is a about an hour north of San Francisco. Sometimes we’d go farther, but we went up and down the coast. The central coast of California is undeniably one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. That’s a road trip I’m very fond of, partly because it’s beautiful and partly because it’s my childhood.
Similarly, I was kind of running out of material… I had written about all of the Night Vale tour that seemed interesting and I was going into the third Alice season and realized I was going to have to take a few trips just to get material for Alice. So I rented a car and drove around a part of California I haven’t spent much time in, which is the desert. I drove down to the Salt Lake Sea and then I drove up through Death Valley. Death Valley… I had never been, even though I had grown up not too far from it. In my head, you know, you hear it’s the driest, lowest, hottest place in North America. You’d think it must look bleak, but it’s extraordinarily beautiful. You’re driving on these roads were you can see from horizon to horizon and you’re the only car.
Those road trips… I really enjoyed those. I have a strong connection to California, so driving around California is something I enjoy.
Both of those sound incredibly different.
They’re both only an hour and a half from each other.
Sometimes in Alice Keisha will mention food, whether she’s stopping in a gas station and buying beef jerky… and the whole thing starts in a diner. Every time she mentions road trip food it makes me hungry. What’s your favorite gas station snack?
Well… I mean, beef jerky. That’s something we discovered early on the Night Vale tours. Road trips get built around food because it gives you something to do. Gas station snacks are mostly pretty terrible for you, but beef jerky is the least terrible for you because it’s very high in protein and very low in fat. It doesn’t have any carbs. Early on we were like, “If we’re going to buy snacks lets buy jerky.” It’s kind of cooled off a bit, but there was a period during the Night Vale tour where there were always 10 open bags of jerky in the van.
The van must have smelled fantastic.
Tour vans always do.
For the third year in a row, I’m watching a horror movie every night in October, I watched The Fog last night, but what would you recommend I watch this month?
As it happens, if you go to my Twitter, just yesterday I posted my annual list of recommended horror movies because people ask me this a lot. So I have a list of 40 for you to watch. Off the top of my head, I separate them by ‘absolute favorites’, ‘very good’ and ‘also worth watching’. I’m probably going to forget one, but I think my favorites list is It Follows, which is also possibly my favorite movie, Get Out, Halloween, Trick R Treat and The Purge 2.