What if someone told you what the future was going to be? What if their predictions were right? And what if you found yourself trapped between those determined to change what was destined to happen…and those who wanted to make sure it did?
That’s the premise of The Oracle Year, the latest work from prolific comics writer Charles Soule (Death of Wolverine, Letter 44) …except it’s not a comic. It’s Soule’s first prose novel, out this week from HarperCollins, and already earning rave reviews from many news outlets including Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Review. We spoke with Soule about his prose fiction debut, and even got a few updates on his many, many other projects along the way.
Newsarama: Charles, tell us about the story of The Oracle Year.
Charles Soule: The Oracle Year is about the appearance of a prophet, essentially, in the modern world. This guy pops up online saying that he’s seen the future, and he puts a list of things on Reddit. And they’re all very innocuous things, but one by one, they start to come true. And the world, being the world, starts speculating as to who this oracle is, what he might want, and why he’s putting this stuff out there. Once his bonafides have been established, he adds to his post, saying, “This is not all I know…” with the implications being that you can ask questions, and get an answer.
So that’s the setup for the book. But from there, the story expands – it looks like the way the world would react to someone being able to tell the future, what would happen if a real prophet existed. And it looks at that prophet himself, who’s a 27-year-old man named Will Dando living in New York City, who is kind of a down-on-his-luck bass player, who has kind of stumbled into 108 pieces of the future, big and small, and trying to figure out how to use them. So naturally, his first instinct is to monetize them, and he and his best friend Hamza manage to make about half a billion dollars by the end of Chapter 3.
And it just goes from there. We follow it from along two tracts – how the world reacts to a prophet, and how the prophet reacts to being a prophet.
Nrama: That seems a major theme of SF/fantasy novels – seeing how far a premise can go in terms of what its impact would be, if it went to its natural conclusion, as opposed to a surface skim of the story – “What would happen next? And after that? And after that?”
Soule: That’s it exactly. I wanted to explore this from as many angles as I could – political, economic, pop-cultural, religious – the way that all different types of people in the world would be thinking about this person being out there.
Nrama: What made you want to do this story as a novel, as opposed to a comic-book series or graphic novel?
Soule: Some ideas are just better executed as novels – or as a comic, or movie, or TV show. This just felt like the right form for this story – it’s very internal, it’s dealing with topics like free will. It certainly could have been done as a comic, but it didn’t feel like itself in the same way as something like, say, Letter 44 or Curse Words, which were extremely visual from the beginning.
This just felt like something where I wanted to explore these ideas in detail, through prose. So – that’s what I wanted, and that’s what I got!
Nrama: The main difference I usually see between a prose and a visual work – such as film/TV/comics – is that prose is often more internal, as you mentioned. You can have these digressions, go inside a character’s head in a way that you can’t when the story constantly has to be moving forward visually.
Soule: I agree – though, at the same time, there are excellent graphic novels that pull that trick off, there are excellent films that pull that trick off. It’s wherever you feel it’s right, medium-wise.
And the other, slightly more mercenary answer is that I wanted to write a novel – I love comics, and I also love novels, and I’m a huge consumer of the written word. So, I wanted to write a book– and I did!
Nrama: How long did it take you to do the book, and what were the challenges of writing it vs. writing comics?
Soule: It took years – and part of the challenge is that I have a really significant workload in comics, which I’m really luck to have, of course. I’m on six monthly titles, and some of those double-ship, so there’s months where I have to write seven, eight comic scripts. So, finding time to write anything else is really hard.
And so, the biggest challenge was finding time to write this with the level of detail I wanted, at the level of quality I wanted, while also staying on time and making sure I kept up a consistent level of quality on everything else, from She-Hulk to Darth Vader.
Nrama: Going back even further – where did the initial idea of the prophet come about? Because I’ve seen works in different media recently dealing with prophets, miracles, religious phenomena – really setting them against the cynicism of the modern world.
Soule: Right – well, first off, I don’t consider this a religious story. He’s not John the Baptist or a prophet of a religious background – that’s not how he presents himself, that’s not who he is. He’s just this guy who knows some bits of the future.
The background of it was – I was working at breaking into comics while also working as an attorney, and I still do that to some degree today. That was also very time-consuming and challenging, trying to do both at the same time – trying to write comics and draft briefs and deal with clients and all that wonderful stuff you do as an attorney.
The question I would have loved to have known the answer to at that time was, “Will I make it? Will all this work and stress be worth it?” And I think everyone has some questions like that – things they’re desperate to know about their future, and that they would love to have an oracle answer for them.
So, that spun into the world of the story, which is where that kind of question could be answered. We’re all, as human beings, kind of obsessed with the future, and that seemed like fertile ground for a good story. And hopefully, it is one!
Nrama: Obviously, the story’s plot is driven by these fantastic elements, but curious as to whether you did any research for the book, and if so, what kind.
Soule: I’m sort of lucky, in that I have pretty universal tastes in my reading – I like nonfiction, I like learning new things. So, I had enough information to let me generate at least a draft based on things I already knew.
Some of it was the attorney background. Some of it was finance – there’s a big financial component to the book, how things like the stock market might be affected by a prophet or at least a forecaster being in the world. I know people who are in that world, so I was able to talk to them about that.
There were other things I did not know, though – like the ways that computer viruses actually propagate through the world, and what they can actually do, and the ways they’re deployed. And the Deep Web and the Dark Web, and the distinction between them, and the sorts of communities that exist on them – things like that.
But you just have to do your homework! As you’re developing a big project, you start to realize things you want to write about but can’t do so with any authority. And you have to give yourself that authority, by doing your homework – doing research, talking to people, there’s any number of ways to do it. And I’ve done them all at one point or another.
Nrama: I always worry with researching something like the Dark Web that I’m going to wind up on a list.
Soule: Hey, we’re all on one list or another! (laughs) The last few weeks have proven that. I’m still trying to work through my feelings on massive personal data collection, and the implications that it has.
Nrama: And that ties back to your story – even in a non-religious sense, everyone has a sense that they’re being watched and judged, that people know things about them that they’d rather not have known.
Soule: Yeah, exactly. It’s not that it’s not a religious story – religion is a massive component in the book. One of the major characters, who’s very antagonistic against the Oracle, is a televangelist of sorts – a megachurch pastor, and he’s very threatened by the fact that someone’s performing the miracles he’s been describing as solely in the domain of Jesus or God. So, he’s trying to unmask the Oracle, to prove to his congregation that they should talk to him if they want to talk to God.
Again, the whole book is about the experience of looking at knowing the future through all these different lenses, and how it affects different people – such as someone who says, “You can only know the future through a legitimately sent-by-God prophet.” In a military sense, if he says “North Korea will invade South Korea on this date,” you’ll have people who want to prevent it, people who want to make sure it happens, and people who take action in their lives based on it. Thinking about all these things on a global level was the biggest challenge – and the most fun part – of the book.
Nrama: And you’re putting this out all in one volume, as opposed to a serialized comic – or even a series of graphic novels. How was dealing with a story with this many moving parts different from doing comics, and what was the experience like for you as a writer?
Soule: First of all, it’s a different set of muscles. It’s a long, sustained effort over years, like I said, where you’re creating this thing, then revising it again and again and again before you send it out in the world and get notes and revise it again…
It weighs on your mind, all the time. It’s different from, say, doing a Daredevil issue – when I want to write a Daredevil issue, I’ll focus mainly on it for the several days I’m working on it. Whereas with a novel, it’s really just this constant low-level stove burner that’s in the back of your mind, but not turned all the way up. Sometimes you’ll turn it up, but it’s never not off. So, keeping that low-level intensity on all the time was something I really had to learn, and I’m glad that I did it.
The idea is – it’s a game of inches. You write a chapter, you revise a chapter, you write half a sentence, you write a paragraph – it all adds to the structure you’re building that’s part of the novel. And it’s not easy to do – there’s lots of times you’d rather do something else, but if you don’t do it, the novel never gets done. And if it never gets done, you can’t get it out in the world, you can’t sell it, you can’t show it to anyone else. And if you can’t do that, what’s the point?
Nrama: It’s about trying to get something finished, out of your head.
Soule: Right! Exactly. It’s about constant progress towards finishing something. You can revise, and you can move on, but if you never put in the time, you’ll never have that opportunity to revise and make it better.
Nrama: What was your experience working with the publisher like? Because I imagine it’s very distinct from working with a comic book company.
Soule: It is! It really is. I was extremely fortunate to be working with HarperCollins, and they are obviously a major, major publishing house, with all the editorial and promotional support you could want. Which is not to say that’s not in comics – but comics live and die in preorders and on shops being able to take the gamble on new issues of your series. It’s really about the time before release that’s crucial.
With books, the release is more crucial – a bookstore could order ten thousand copies of The Oracle Year, but that wouldn’t count as a sale of ten thousand until they’re actually sold to customers, because they could go unsold and be remaindered and sent back to the publisher. Which hopefully isn’t what will happen with The Oracle Year.
But the point is that it’s a whole different cycle of marketing and sales, and they’ve done a great job of letting know about where I need to push and promote the book, and hopefully it’ll do well.
Nrama: But beyond hard copy, this is available in multiple formats, such as e-books, correct?
Soule: It’s available in everything. I can’t quite wrap my head around it – it’s just huge. I’m very, very lucky to have something coming out on this level. The advance reviews have been excellent, which is very satisfying – everything looks really good, but again, it’s about people actually checking it out.
If people enjoy my comics work, I think they’ll enjoy it, but if they haven’t read me in comics – I think they’ll like it too. It’s a good book to go outside and read as the weather gets warmer.
Nrama: Are you planning to do any more novels?
Soule: I am – I’m working on my follow-up to The Oracle Year, which is not a sequel, but just the next book that I’m writing. Hopefully, that will go well – these things take time, and sometimes ideas take a while to flesh out and get good. I’m hopeful – I think you can’t be a writer without some kind of optimism, because like I said, you have that low-level burner going on in your head at all times. And you can’t get through that without some hope that it’ll work out, or that it’ll at least be good. So, we’ll see.
Nrama: And anything you’d like to offer as a preview for what’s coming up for you in comics?
Soule: I have a lot of stuff going on. The Hunt for Wolverine is on – that’s the story that brings back Wolverine, after I also killed him in 2014. I think it’s going to be a really cool, huge story. It’s just this big, epic – I don’t want to say “sprawling,” but we set up this mystery about where Wolverine is, and how he returned, and what’s going to happen next. So, we scatter clues all throughout the main event, and then in these four individual miniseries that spin out from it. It’s like a big set of puzzle pieces that, if you read all of it, you will have, hopefully, a deeper sense of everything. And then that spins out into something else, which I can’t talk about just yet.
We just wrapped up the Mayor Fisk story in Daredevil with issue #600, which has a huge spoiler that I’m not going to go on about because the book just came out, but it sets up a huge status quo change for Matt Murdock and for New York City that I’m excited to explore in the next arc. I cannot wait for people to see it – Mike Henderson is drawing it, and he’s doing an amazing job.
Then I’m on Darth Vader with Giuseppe Camuncoli and Daniele Orlandini and David Curiel. We are moving into the third major arc of this story, which is set on Mon Cala, with all of those awesome squid-people like Admiral Ackbar, and Vader and the Emperor butting heads with them.
And then on Poe Dameron, with issue #26, we are moving into The Force Awakens timeline finally. So, we are going to see some things Poe and his friends did during the movie that we didn’t necessarily in the movie. It’s not exactly Rashomon, but we’re going to weave these different points of view for different scenes. Angel Unzueta and Arif Prianto are on the art.
All these teams are amazing; I just love working with them, and I hope they’re not sick of me!
Nrama: And for a final question: When do you sleep?
Soule: (Sighs) At night…when I can. And not as much right now with this book coming out and the need to get the word out! But I’m grateful for the opportunity, and realize how lucky I am. So, I figure I can sleep later if I desperately need to. (laughs)