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Faces to Watch 2014: Books

'Welcome to Night Vale'

Storytellers

Twice monthly, an eerily calm voice reports the news from Night Vale. Like other small towns, Night Vale has PTA meetings, local construction projects and a high school football team. However, most small towns aren't haunted by a glowing cloud, their stray dogs don't have three heads and passing sandstorms don't create replicants.

"Welcome to Night Vale" is a podcast created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor that's a mash-up of H.P. Lovecraft and "Prairie Home Companion." The show reached the top of iTunes' podcast chart in late 2013, which led to a book deal: A "Welcome to Night Vale" novel will be published by HarperPerennial in 2015.

Fink, 27, is from Camarillo; Cranor, 38, grew up in Texas and Oklahoma. The two met doing experimental theater in New York, but set "Night Vale" in a remote desert where the boundary between real and unreal stretches thin.

"Welcome to Night Vale" is the best fictional podcast out there, a terrific example of how the form can be used for storytelling. Like quality science fiction, it's a world with impeccable continuity that's able to grow in unexpected ways. And like Charles Dickens, Fink and Cranor write serially, often responding to the ideas of their listeners.

The show's creators maintain a close relationship with their fans, answering emails and doing a live stage version (a 2014 West Coast tour is almost sold out; there are still tickets for the late show at Largo at the Coronet on Jan. 25). Cranor and Fink understand that in the new media landscape, a writer's job isn't just to write: It's to bring stories to audiences wherever they are.

Carolyn Kellogg

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Edan Lepucki

Novelist

Edan Lepucki's first novel, "California," due out in July, comes steeped in Southern California narrative tradition: "a post-apocalyptic domestic drama" (or so she calls it) about a couple that escapes a devastated Los Angeles to raise a child in a new and elemental world. One thinks of Steve Erickson or Cynthia Kadohata, or Carolyn See, whose 1987 novel "Golden Days" ends with the nuclear holocaust.

"I wanted to write about the future," the 32-year-old author says by email, "but have the personal relationships be [the] central concern." Then, one evening, she was driving along Sunset Boulevard, and at the boundary between Echo Park and Silver Lake, the streetlights had gone out. "I wondered," Lepucki remembered, "what it would be like to live in a ruined L.A. -- no services, the roads neglected -- and I extrapolated from there."

For Lepucki, there's a strong personal connection at work here; although she lives in the Bay Area, she's an Angeleno born and raised. A staff writer for literary web site the Millions, she "write[s] about books as a way to understand what I've read," and she runs a writing school, Writing Workshops Los Angeles. "For me," she says, "a literary life involves books, sentence-making and rich conversations with other writers and readers. (Also: coffee and chocolate.)"

Lepucki's novella, "If You're Not Yet Like Me," appeared in 2010 from the independent press Flatmancrooked, but as a first novel, "California" represents a different order of debut. "Once you start a novel," she says, "everything gets folded in: pregnancy, parenthood, my experiences as a student at Oberlin College ... sibling relationships, suicide bombers, gated communities, coyotes, baking. ... How it became a book? Sheesh ... I have no clue."

David L. Ulin

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Cristina Henríquez

Novelist

Cristina Henríquez likes to quip that her forthcoming novel, "The Book of Unknown Americans," is "the great Delaware novel everyone's been waiting for."

The daughter of Panamanian immigrants, Henríquez grew up in Newark, Del., a suburb of Wilmington, but now lives in Chicago. Her novel, to be published in spring by Knopf, tells the story of Latin American families whose journeys to the U.S. bring them to the same apartment building in Delaware.

It's a sweeping and ambitious work, with the point of view shifting among a dozen characters: Mexican, Guatemalan, Nicaraguan.

"I have a lot of people ask me why it's set in Delaware," Henríquez, a 36-year-old graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, said by phone. "My answer is that there are communities like this everywhere."

Henríquez set her first two books (the story collection "Come Together, Fall Apart" and the novel "The World in Half") in Panama, a country she visited often as a child. But in her lifetime, a kind of Latino country has been spreading across the United States: from places like Gettysburg, Pa., and Grand Island, Neb. Her new novel is an attempt to describe the nation we're becoming.

"The Book of Unknown Americans" has a love story and an accident at its center. Much of the action unfolds on a street like Newark's Kirkwood Highway. "My mom is a translator for the school district in Delaware," Henríquez says. "She'd hear these different stories from working with families there. Those stories stuck with me."

Hector Tobar

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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