An interview with JR Handley

December 2016 saw the launch of The Sleeping Legion, the first Human Legion spin off series, all-action military science fiction books written by JR Handley. But who is JR Handley? And what has he/ she/ they been doing with the universe I created? I thought it high time I contacted JR Handley to find out the answers...

1. We’ve been working together for so long, that I’m starting to forget how it all came about in the first place. How did you come across my books? Do you go back as far as Greyhart Press?

I stumbled into your universe after I’d been introduced to the Kindle by my neurologist, who was trying to get me to read again. Because of my Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI, I was told I must exercise my grey matter or I’d be at a heightened risk for dementia and other related issues. I’d stopped reading because printed books gave me migraines after suffering my head injury. Yes, even large print books. My VA (Veterans Administration) care-team struggled to find a solution; my doctor, my mom and my wife didn’t give up though. Then my mom remembered that you could magnify the heck out of the print with the new Kindles. With nothing to lose, I gave it a try. It worked and then I was off to the races reading again. I’ll always remember 2014 fondly because of this rediscovery of my love for the written word.

I started with every free book I could find and then narrowed in on several genres. It kept me occupied while languishing in the Veteran Affairs medical waiting rooms—where I spend too much of my life. Books let me escape the depressing hospitals, and charge into other worlds. Worlds where I wasn’t haunted by visions of Iraq. After my shrink recommended I use writing as therapy, I gravitated towards science fiction and read everything I could afford. I then tried to write my own spin-offs of those stories as practice. I read so much that my family gave me Amazon gift cards that Christmas!! Eager to spend my newfound digital currency, I went looking at the Hot New Releases in the science fiction, and found Marine Cadet by Tim C. Taylor.

While going all fan-boy I looked into Tim, saw he also had a publishing company and followed him there too. Read a few good novels from his company, time well spent. I also found his original Human Legion website and began furiously chatting in the comments section. This ended up with my teaming up with Hans and attempting a Wiki page. During my talks with Tim about the Wiki I suggested some side stories which he could tell in the universe, places where there were questions that I wanted answers to. I then went back to writing my own stuff, which I sent to Tim for a friendly review. He said he loved the premise and gave it a critique, which I promptly adjusted for. Shortly after I submitted a formal proposal to his new Human Legion Publications. Tim said no, since he wasn’t taking outside work. Instead, he counter proposed that I write a few novellas, the very stories I’d suggested that he write. Those novellas grew up, and here we are with a series of novels.

2. I can remember clearly why I commissioned you to write The Sleeping Legion. The gaps between releases in the Human Legion series felt like chasms of deep time. I recruited Ian Whates to speed up the main series, and your fine self to get a second series of novellas on the go that could alternate releases with the first one. Neither of those ideas quite worked in the way I had originally intended. Your books, in particular, flow so smoothly that it’s easy to forget that those novellas became full-size novels. Things didn’t go as expected, but I’m super excited with how they’ve turned out. What’s surprised you about your writing experience over the past 18 months?

I guess the most surprising thing for me was how much work happened AFTER you wrote the novel. I thought the writing would be the hard part, but in retrospect that wasn’t the case. The edits and business side of everything has proven to be much more difficult. Honestly, without my family I couldn’t handle that part of things, it gets very confusing. Another thing that surprised me was how attached I’d get to characters. They become real to me, not like hallucinations, but real people none the less.

I’ve also been surprised at how lonely and solitary writing can be. You sit at a computer with only a temperamental muse to keep you company and mine seems to think she’s my drill sergeant. You second guess every decision, and sometimes when I call for advice I wonder if it’s just so I can here another human voice. My poor wife and mother, getting all those random calls… should Lance have blue hair or purple? Okay, just kidding… or am I? Better buy the book and find out! Another thing which has surprised me, was how sometimes I’ve managed to make the right decision accidentally. Where words turn out to be the perfect choice and I didn’t even know it. For instance, I based a character off a Norse culture, and then had him use Kraken as a cussword. I didn’t realize that the Kraken was a Norse monster of legend. I hope this really helps, because once the money starts coming in you have the freedom to expand. Hire professional editors, cover artists, etc. In other places, random words or sentences end up hugely bolstering what is said or done later, and I didn’t realize I did it until the editing phase. I’m always surprised when I see particularly good turn of phrase, and think to myself “I wrote this?”

Finally, I’m continually surprised by how supportive my family has been throughout this whole process. They’ve not complained…much, about the time spent writing or daydreaming. My wife has willingly bought a better, ergonomic office chair before we’ve even made a dime on these novels. This has been my biggest surprise, though I suppose it shouldn’t have been.

3. I remember during Summer 2015 I was writing hooks directly into the Tranquility section of Human Legion book 4: Human Empire for you to pick up and play with. Did it help? What did you do with them?

To be honest, the main premise of this novel came from Marine Cadet, the first novel in the Human Legion Series. The Marine Farm #3 comment made by Umarov about Detroit City gave me an idea, where did the third city on Tranquility go? It became the inspiration for Kalino City, the home of Lance Scipio. This lead to other questions, why was it lost? When was it lost? We had a timeline, so we knew it was lost by a certain day, but when? Then, in Renegade Legion we saw Beta City get raided, and I was left wondering what happened to the Marines trapped inside, frozen and waiting for their buddies to revive them? That was the basic premise, your insertions into Human Empire made it a bit harder for me, but overall the story was better for it. Having Nhlappo and Tizer gave me tie-ins to the main story arc, and adding Spartika and her posse of fools allowed me to have some built in tension. Basically, those tie ins truly made my stand-alone series a part of your universe, while remaining independent.

That said, I continually look for ways to link to Tim’s Human Legion series with hidden nuggets to my Sleeping Legion Series. I won’t tell you what they are, since I want you to be surprised when you find them. I’ve pulled something from each Human Legion novel, well up until our series split with Colonel Nhlappo lands on Tranquility-4 to retrieve the icers left hidden underneath Detroit City. I play up the firing of the tactical nuclear bombs we read about as the Beowulf flees from the Hardit attacks. If you don’t remember, it causes some panic and confusion on the bridge deck, but the naval officers present kick ass and put those whiners in their place. In my debut novel, The Legion Awakes, I show that from the viewpoint of the Marines on the ground. I start that novel so that it’s happening at the same time as Arun is playing over in Detroit City, making my characters experience the horrors of the Free Corps Mutiny and all the chaos that it entails. Don’t worry, I’m not Paul E. Cooley, some of my characters live! I don’t want to go much beyond that in the details, can’t rob you of the surprises as you read! If you want to see more of the links between the two universes, read our books! No really, every day you don’t read our books the New Order Terrorists win!!!

4. Indeed. I don’t like to put the hard sell on people who might enjoy our books, but as you say: ‘Buy our books now or good people will die!’ Just saying. Anyway, back to you; like many of the new cadre of military Science Fiction and space opera authors, you’ve real-life military experience. Do you feel your service in the US Army added a veneer of authenticity to your writing? Did it add something more profound as well?

That’s a tough question, on the surface you would think that it absolutely would make my stories more believable. I would say a conditioned yes because it gives me some credibility, at least at first, to the readers. I also believe it helps me write the military culture, to understand the warriors involved and to respect them enough to write them fairly. My warriors are not cardboard cut outs, they’re not Hollywood tropes and they’re not overblown super soldiers. They’re men and women with a common goal, trained to bring death upon their enemies, but men and women all the same. They have lovers and families, lives outside of their uniform and above all they don’t want to die for a cause. They want to live and force the other guy to die for their stupid cause. My warriors have dreams for the future, but they willingly risk that for the warriors surrounding them, because that love has value. I realize that sounds sappy, like one of those movie tropes, but some of them exist because they reflect reality. I truly loved the soldiers I served with, in ways that transcend familial or romantic love. Some of them still call me, and for the guys in my fire team I’ll be their ‘sarge’ for perpetuity. And even though some stayed active duty and outranked the E-5 stripes I proudly wore, they’ll always be Specialist Joe to me. The lightning rod of combat, the first rounds fired, it solidifies that moment, encapsulating it and preserving the bond. For us, time stopped and Bravo Fire Team will always be as it was. Even though we moved on, it remains.

Anyway, I better move on or I’ll ramble forever. While my time in the infantry helped give my novels something extra, because I was writing what I know, the tactics of the future would be different. You have to consider war in a sphere, all 360 degrees matter and if you don’t consider that factor you’ll end up a notch on some enemy’s rifle. When I was envisioning the tactics, I took what I know from modern combat and expounded upon it with a lot of “what if’s” over a few beers with an old Army buddy. I mention him in the ‘Special Thanks’ section, but he was a senior NCO and helped me figure out the parts I didn’t know. We met, chatted and diagramed what it might look like until I was satisfied I had what I needed. Wrote a few tactical formations and left room for expansion later. When world building, remember never paint yourself into a corner and that forced us to reach a certain point and stop. If I ever need more, I will certainly revisit the situation though.

Another issue I ran into when writing a large scale fictional army was that I had zero experience at battalion level or any of the echelons above that. As a fire team leader, I was trained to become a squad leader in the event of battlefield casualties. I went to a military college and took several years of ROTC teaching me to lead a platoon and company, which I feel I could confidently do…though I imagine the learning curve would be harsh. Again, I believe I understood enough to make it believable but it’s a series of educated guesses based upon research.

5. JR Handley is the pseudonym for a team effort. Could you tell us how that works?

Well, I come up with the ideas and flesh them out with my wife and mother. We tweak them so they flow and make sense. Mostly we do this over lunch at the local Cracker Barrel; we call those our board meetings. My mother helps keep up with my story codex to ensure I don’t contradict anything I’ve already written. I then type the outline and we all agree on it before I jump in and start writing. My mother then goes behind me to fix the issues of my poor grammar, which I sadly wasn’t taught in school, and the complications of my anomic aphasia. The anomic aphasia means that I often get words and names confused, so when I don’t remember the words I just describe them. It’s not a washing machine, it’s that dang box that you put your clothes in so they smell nice. My mother or wife then go back and clean it up, turning my gibberish back into cogent English. When the story is done, my mother then does a final edit before we turn it over to Tim and Corey my editor. Hopefully this process ends with enjoyable books that have fans coming back for more.

6. It’s definitely a team effort that works well. I talked with a lot of authors when I was more actively engaged with running Greyhart Press, but I never Skyped with their mom. Mind you, my dad has been enormously helpful with my books, and he is a fanboy of yours after helping out with the Sleeping Legion. It’s sounds like we’re headed for a medieval dynastic union. The Royal House of Handley-Taylor. The Handley-Taylor crest should have a cup of tea on it somewhere. Back to the most pressing matter for the Sleeping Legion books. What are your casting recommendations for the movie version?

This question is really hard, I had actors in mind as body models when I wrote certain characters but the ages wouldn’t be right. You wrote a world where they die young and cryogenic freezing means they’re often only awake for battles and then iced again. Regrettably the actors I used as models in my head would likely be too old. I do like the idea of a cast of unknown actors, with the story being the draw. I think the closest I could find would a young (very early 20’s) Shemar Moore would be Lance Scipio, and Sashala would be a teenage young Jana Kramer. For Charlotte ‘Wires’ Rochambeau I’d envisioned she would look like Molly Quinn, who plays the daughter on the TV show, ‘Castle’. Hmm, and maybe Sigourney Weaver from ‘Aliens’ for Colonel Nhlappo? Again, since none of these are the ages they were when I envisioned them OR to be right for the story, we’d have to go with a cast of unknowns. Well, unknown to me but I was always one who watched a movie for the story and didn’t care which star was in it. The movie was good or it wasn’t, it was always that simple for me. Pop culture just isn’t my thing.

7. Thanks. I’ll pass your recommendations on to the casting director (just as soon as we sell the film rights). The Sleeping Legion is a military SF spin-off from a space opera/military SF series, but this is not just a writing gig for you. Like me, you’re a fanboy for military SF. Give me three writers/books/series that you were inspired by/were channeling/ or you hope the sleeping Legion books would appeal to. That’s the easy part. Then say why.

Hmm, I would love to appeal to the Honorverse fans because David Weber has inspired them to create an amazing fan club. The idea of people cosplaying my characters is mind blowing, and I would love it if they did! Can’t wait to reach that status!! Truly, when fans start cosplaying you then you know you’ve made it, whatever IT is. It has to be the pinnacle of an author’s career.

I was inspired by the Empire of Bones Saga, written by Terry Mixon. He’s a fellow soldier, served in the 101st Airborne like I did, and writes pretty amazing stuff. He keeps fans on their toes, pays his bills and enjoys the adventure. Basically, he’s hit the trifecta. He’s not at the top, not at the bottom and basically the sky’s the limit for him. I imagine he’s got years of solid stories left in him and I hope to enjoy the ride. He also podcasts, The Dead Robots Society Podcast, which is all about paying it forward and helping new authors. They’ve a Facebook group as well, where people bend over backwards trying to help each other. He, and his co-host Paul E. Cooley, have created their own niche community of writers and they let anyone join them. Seriously, go check them out! Finally, I would love to reach the top of science fiction. I want generations of fans arguing whether or not Star Trek, Star Wars or The Sleeping Legion was the better series. Obviously, I will humbly accept the adoration from the masses while holed up in my bunker down by the river.

8. You’re right that there is a huge amount of paying it forward in publishing, and in science fiction self-publishing in particular. In that spirit, I’ve added some links above to the people you’ve just mentioned (even David Weber who needs to take a few years off to give the rest of us a chance – only kidding, Mr. Weber; we love those books so keep them coming). Now, imagine the scenario: you’ve got $500 that will self-destruct at dawn, and an evening to spend it out with one of the characters in your books. Who would you pick and where would you go?

That’s a tough question, is my wife in the room with us?

If she’s there, I would say Lance Scipio because he reminds me of the naïve young sergeant I used to be. He basically wants to stay a kid, but life and responsibility are forced upon him. Obviously, I choose to go before my promotion board, so it’s not the same, but my youth was ripped from me by life. Like with Lance, war has a way of changing you and I was no different. War forces you to question everything you know, or thought you knew, and it would be interesting to see how that affected Lance. I also think maybe he’d finally settle the long-standing argument Tim and I’ve been having about the proper way to enjoy beer. He would clearly choose to enjoy it cold, like God intended. Also, it would be fun to corrupt him, given he’s never had a chance to enjoy the finer things in life. If my wife isn’t there, I would probably say Sashala Kraevoi because she’s adorable!! I mean, she’s tough, sassy, and awesome with knives. She could kick your arse and look cute while doing it! We could enjoy some lessons in sword play, with no cameras to ensure that there was no damning evidence of my defeat, and then I could show her a night of good booze and better food. Oh heck, lets cheat and take them both!!! Lance and Sashala so I could laugh at their interactions together! I wish you got to meet Sashala sooner, but she gets her time to shine in Operation Breakout, book three of The Sleeping Legion Series.

9. Yup. Here’s hoping there are no embarrassing hospital visits in your near future involving domestic knife-related accidents. Which ties in nicely to my next question. There’s a whole world outside of science fiction and books. Apparently. Personally, I don’t believe that, but my wife tells me it’s true and I know better than to disagree. So, how about it? What you like to do in your downtime?

I’m an undedicated gamer, meaning I love playing but adulting gets in the way and now my Xbox One has dust on it. One day, I’ll knock the dust off and plow into Fallout, Skyrim and Halo again. I love first person shooters and RPGs mostly, never was one for sports gaming. I enjoy movies, cuddling on the couch with my boss…urm, my wife. I’m a bit of a news and politics junkie, though as a libertarian, I just start the debate accepting defeat. Seriously though, I do read non-science fiction as well. It exists; they call it fantasy!! Recently, I’ve also started trying to get thin again. Like they told me in my army days… “You wanna be Airborne, you gotta be thin!” With my injury, I take it slow, starting with a half mile in the morning which started when my youngest son, whose autism makes him somewhat blunt and direct, saw an old photo of me in uniform. “That’s not you, Daddy, that’s half of you!” Hopefully I’ll get thin enough to fit into my uniform again, but it’s hard. I’d gotten used to eating and drinking whatever I please. You can do that when you run a few miles every day. But I digress…. Never mind the pizza sauce that’s dripping from my lips!! LOL!! Oh, if my wife asks, we had a nice salad!

10. Finally – and remember all I have taught you over the past 18 months – how does God intend beer to be served? (Hint: to help you come up with the right answer, it may help to don your powdered wig.)

According to the hidden video I made during our last Skype session, we both agree that beer should be served in a frosty mug!!

Oh, dear… and you were doing so well until that last question. Clearly, JR Handley is still a work in progress in some respects as a human being, but as an author, JR Handley has delivered top-rate military science fiction books that I am proud to publish alongside the Human Legion and Revenge Squad stories. JR Handley, or as I should really say, Team Handley… thank you for your time.

The Sleeping Legion