Charles Soule Reveals the Secrets Behind The Oracle Year

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Photo: HarperCollins

Where does Charles Soule find the time? In addition to writing comic-book series such as Daredevil, Darth Vader, Astonishing X-Men, Letter 44, and Curse Words, he’s also a practicing immigration lawyer. Somehow he also managed to write a hefty novel called The Oracle Year. It follows the travails of Will Dando, a young New Yorker who one day wakes up knowing 108 specific — and, as it turns out, frighteningly accurate — predictions about the future. When he makes those predictions public, the world quickly spirals into chaos. Even if you think you don’t have time to read, it may be entering your life soon — the book is already being developed as a TV show. Vulture’s Abraham Riesman spoke with Soule at the book’s release event at Greenlight Books in Brooklyn, where they discussed the significance of the number 108, how writing novels differs from writing comics, and the differences between the Dark Web and the Deep Web.

So, there’s this story about Philip K. Dick that might be total B.S., but I’ve loved it as a metaphor. Apparently, a name appeared into his head: “Mr. Tagomi.” And he wrote down the name Mr. Tagomi and then consulted the I-Ching about what that name could mean, where he should take that name, and from that, the entire novel The Man in the High Castle came into being. What was your Mr. Tagomi for The Oracle Year? Or can you not say, because it’s a spoiler?
No, no! I can. It’s not really much of a spoiler. So, before I was a writer, I was working very full-time as an attorney. I was at a big firm in Manhattan for years, and then I opened my own practice. You take the bar exam after you go to law school, after you graduate, study for three months, take this exam, and then the day after that, I went on a vacation. Many people take a trip after that just to sort of lie on the beach and not think for a while. The day that I went to that beach, I went into a shop and bought a notebook, where I started writing in longhand my first novel. Because I knew what a mistake I had made. [Laughs.]

So I started working on that book; I finished that novel. It exists on my hard drive somewhere. Then there was a lot of time while I was working as an attorney, particularly when I was at the big firm and I was working 68 hours a week, and then I could look ahead of me to see the lives that the law partners had and knew that it really wasn’t something I wanted, and then moving into opening and establishing my own practice — it’s a lot of work. And on the side, I was trying to find those 15-minute slices that I could build into a career of creativity. All of that time, I would have loved to just ask an oracle, [gestures to chair he’s sitting in] “Will I ever be sitting in this chair? Will this actually ever happen?” Everyone in this room has that one thing that they would want to know about their future if they could. So I thought that maybe there was a book there. That was it. It was mostly that I didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore. It’s not really that dramatic.

I want to jump back in time. Who was your favorite author when you were 11 years old?
I know who it is and it’s somebody who I don’t know is that respected? I didn’t care about that at the time.

I’m a guy who writes about comic books; you’re a guy who writes comic books; let’s not worry about respectability.
Yeah, you’re right. It’s an author who I think has become weird with posterity. I think. I’ve never really had this conversation, it’s just how I feel about his books.

You’re really building this up! Who can this person be?
It’s an author called Piers Anthony.

Oh, sure, yeah! 
Yep. Is he still writing? I don’t know.

I actually don’t know. [He is.]
He wrote a series of books called Xanth, which was this kinda long epic fantasy series with 25 books in it. He wrote a pretty cool cycle of books about what the Greek gods would be like if they came to Earth now. It was all very interesting, but it also had these strange … I didn’t see them at the time because I was 11, but now that I look back at it, it had a lot of these really weird sexually obsessed overtones, or undertones I guess. He writes a lot about topless centaur ladies and how wonderful they are and you’re like, “Okay, I guess that’s what the book is about.”

What are the big differences between writing a novel and writing a comic?
Well, comics is a collaborative experience. That’s the main thing. I mean, that’s really the main difference. You’re working with a phenomenal artist. You’re giving them half the vision and then they add their part to it and then there’s some back and forth and you figure it out and you make this thing together. It’s a beautiful process, when you make something that you didn’t do by yourself. It’s a partnership. I’ve been doing music stuff for a long time as well, and the closest experience that I can liken it to is being in a band. You have a song you’re gonna play or a piece you’re gonna write and you write it together, and everybody brings the best of what they have to the finished product. Writing a novel, you’re alone. You have no support, I guess. You do have support, but it’s different. You have emotional support in all sorts of different ways. You have editors who help, and agents, and different people who give you tips along the way.

But you can’t write a scene and go, “Oh, and do something interesting here, Other Person.”
Well, that’s it. The thing is, I can write to Alex, who is the name of one of the artists I’ve worked with, “I need a huge fight scene here over two pages. It’s some aliens and some Stormtroopers and just have a great time. I can’t wait to see it, and you’re gonna do a great job.” Whereas, if you’re gonna write that battle scene and you need to figure out a way to sell every element of it or choose the elements that you’re gonna sell to the reader, to paint it with the words. And I know that’s clichéd, “You’re painting with words,” but that’s what you’re doing with a novel, and the completeness of the experience that you need to generate for the reader is really the main difference between novels and comics for me. There are no shortcuts. You’ve got to do it all, but that’s also freeing.

I was going to say, on the plus side, you’re a totalitarian dictator. You can do whatever you want.
Yeah. Exactly. You don’t have to listen to the artist say, “I don’t want to draw a fight between aliens and Stormtroopers.” Or whatever.

What happened to that novel that you started in longhand on the beach? Why is that not this novel?
That’s a good question. Hard-hitting questions.

That’s what I’m being paid for. 
What happened with the first novel, is that it’s a book about China, 4 A.D. China.

Right. Where you used to live. 
Yes, where I used to live. Not in 4 A.D.

Not 4 A.D., yes. 
But I did live in China for a while. It’s about the advent of Daoism. It’s sort of a magical-realism thing about Daoism appearing in China. It’s got kung fu and gods and all these crazy, magic things. It was a book that I wrote in 2002, 2003, 2004. I had an agent, and he took it out, and it didn’t get acquired, and that’s it. We talked about it at the time, and I’m like, “So who else do we send it to?” And he’s like, “Listen, man, that’s not really how it works. Maybe it’s just not the time for it.” And so it’s still there. I think it’s good, but I wrote it 15 years ago at this point. The idea that that it would be a book that I would take out now? I think it’s important to build a writerly brand to a degree. To write a certain type of book, to be a certain type of writer that readers can have confidence that if they’re going to spend $20 on your hardcover or $10 on your paperback, that they’re gonna get a brand that they have confidence in. Working as a debut author at this point, the idea that this book has been embraced to the degree it has is kind of blowing my mind, and I don’t necessarily know that bringing out a historical fiction magical-realism set in 4 A.D. China, is the smart career move. But it’s a hell of a book!

Did you have the ending in mind when you began the first chapter? And how much did that ending change after you worked on it?
The ending I started with was something like, “He should learn something.”

Well, sure.
“Something should happen. There should be some resolution.” And it … I mean, the book has a million different pieces.

A lot of them, yes. 
I wanted it to feel like this big thunk. You’re like, Oh my god! There was never any other way this book was gonna end. This was inevitable. Which is also thematic.

I was about to say. You kinda have to have it feel that way. 
Yep, exactly. For what the book is about, I wanted it to feel like, I was always going here, I just didn’t know it. So I knew that’s what I wanted the last beat to feel like, but I didn’t know necessarily how I was gonna get there until I had a bunch of pieces on the board and then I could start thinking about ways that I could use them, and they could arrange them sort of so I could just knock them down like dominoes and they just go, Chhhhh bang!

As you have pointed out, there are a lot of moving pieces and one of the ways that manifests itself is there are a lot of disciplines and topics that you put a lot of research into. The Deep Web. The politics of Central Asia. What was the hardest topic for you to get your head around?
I mean, this makes me sound super dumb, but the Deep Web and the Dark Web are topics that are … they’re not the same thing.

Okay, great! I already learned something tonight!
They’re not the same thing at all. One of them is basically a massive collection of uncatalogued websites. Things that are not in Google. They’re not in search engines, whatever. They’re just not there. And then the other one is where people show up and they’re trying to sell illicit pharmaceuticals, or nuclear weapons, all kinds of crazy illicit activity takes place on that one.

Well, which one’s which?
That’s it. There was a point when I was writing this book that I knew. Do you have pieces of information that just won’t stay in your head?

Oh, sure. My parents’ names.
Sure. So Dark versus Deep is one that just refuses to stay in my head. I could make a guess, but I probably would be wrong. So I looked that up, I don’t know, 15 times over the course of writing this book. Which was which? And I did my most thorough looking it up when I was doing the last pass before it actually went in because I didn’t want to screw that up. I probably did anyway, but I did my best!

Why have 108 predictions? Why that number?
So, 108 is a number that is significant in Buddhism and Hinduism. It’s also a number that, the digits add up to nine, which is a number that I personally like and has a lot of significance in creativity and so on, like the Muses and all that. One of my first big comic projects was a book called 27, which was for Image, which is a book about the numerology of nine, and so I wanted to keep that going here and the idea that 108 worked so well, it’s such a central book about, or central number related to destiny and predestination and fate and all that in Buddhism, Hinduism.

What kinds of notes did you get back from your editor that you took to heart? What was something that you heard that you went, Oh, you know what? That’s right. That’s exactly what needs to happen.
There were a number of things. I was fortunate that my editor liked it from the beginning, which was great. So the notes were, there wasn’t anything massively structural, which was a huge — that was my terror, that she’s going to go back and say, Well, you know what would be great is if you’d just pull this character or this plotline out because it’s really not working, and then I’m like, Well, that means I have to start from page one. Fortunately, no things like that, but the one that really struck me, that I still have a problem with to this day, is … So I write comics, right?

So I hear.
And in comics, there’s a trope when you’re writing dialogue where words are emphasized.

Ah yes, the italicization and bolding.
So Doctor Doom might say, I’m going to blast you to oblivion. And you would emphasize oblivion. You’d bold and italicize it, and in the script, the way that you designate that is by underlining it in the dialogue. And so I do that all the time. In the first draft, when you look at it with sort of clear eyes, a paragraph might have three words underlined in it, and then when you take them out, it’s better. It’s a lot better. It flows, it has a smoothness to it, and so one of her notes was, I don’t know if you need any of these. So I went back and I think I kept maybe, out of literally hundreds and hundreds, I think I probably kept two in the entire book. So that was a note that was very sharp.

The first line of the novel is: “Anything can happen, Will Dando thought, in the next five seconds, in the next five years. Anything at all.” When did you know that you had the first line of the novel?
That was late, honestly, because I had many other first lines, and then I realized what the fundamental theme of the book was, which is that at all times, all of humanity, all of us, are predicting the future, right? Because we are sitting here and we are, I’m having this conversation, I’m assuming that in whatever amount of time, the book will go on sale up front, people will buy it, I’ll sign it. That’s what I assume is going to happen. I assume that I will not have a heart attack, I assume that a meteor will not come and smash this place to oblivion. We all, all the time, are making assumptions based on what the probabilities are of our experience and our life, and so we’re all prophets, constantly, but the future is this incredible, unknown thing, always to all of us. We know nothing, literally nothing about it, and anything can happen at any time, but you have to make choices. You have to make decisions based on what you think, what you hope, what you dream it might be, and that is ultimately the thesis of the whole book. So I wanted to start there because when I was writing the book, I never had really thought about it that way, that we … We’re all optimists, right? We’re all people who are assuming that things are going at least go well enough that we’ll keep breathing for the next five minutes and we’ll be alive in five years or whatever.

That’s a big if.
Exactly. It’s not necessarily like, My dreams will come true in five years, but it’s like, If I drink this water, it hasn’t magically turned into vodka or something through cosmic rays. It’s these sort of constant predictions that we’re always making and it’s always based in a place of, The world I know is the world that’s going to continue, which I thought was beautiful.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Charles Soule Reveals the Secrets Behind The Oracle Year