JR Handley, military vet and sci-fi author, on his backstory, what it takes to bring military authenticity to fiction, and lessons from being an author.
Us Handleys have worn uniforms since the dinosaurs roamed the earth.
– JR Handley, author of the Sleeping Legion
My conversations with JR Handley began with an interview – he’d put a public call-out for sci-fi authors, and I immediately put my hand up.
Before long, I was reading his blog, intrigued. JR is an army veteran writing military science fiction; he took up the craft after a long stint in combat in Iraq left him with a head injury and PTSD. His books read like a cross between Warhammer and the Halo books – lots of fast action, military boot camps, and genuine fun.
And they’ve been genuinely successful. JR’s books function in the universe of Tim C. Taylor’s The Human Legion, where human marines serve as slave-soldiers to alien overlords. The Legion Awakes and Fortress Beta City have, as of the time of writing, sold around 10,000 and 5,000 copies respectively. He’s working on the third and fourth novel. There’s even a novella (The Demons of Kor-Lir).
With all of this on his plate, JR is one of the most friendly, approachable authors I’ve met, online or off – we’ve had some pretty late conversations, ranging from writing to politics. He’s also a huge Halo fan.
Needless to say, I asked him for an interview of my own, and JR was kind enough to take the time to make this one of the most detailed interviews I’ve ever done (over 3500 words). We cover JR’s personal history, what it takes to bring military authenticity to fiction, and what he’s learned from being an indie author.
So, for starters, tell us a bit about yourself. On your blog, you’ve spoken about how your writing, for you, was a way out of wartime trauma. How did the whole thing come about?
I’m the product of generations of military service. In my family, when babies were born, we didn’t wonder whether they’d be a doctor or a lawyer, we jokingly asked what their branch of service (Army, Navy, Marine Corps, etc) would be and which job they’d choose. It was natural for me to enlist into the US Army Reserves at 17 to help fund my college experience.
My wife and I met in college, and after I got hurt during my second deployment she wouldn’t leave me. We have two beautiful sons, and a pet rock named Bob. In my undergraduate college program, I was a history major, focusing on Colonial America, and I would’ve gotten my master’s degree in this if I hadn’t damaged my brain playing dodge the bombs on the Iraqi highways.
As for my Army skill set, I had three job descriptions. I was an 88K Watercraft Operator, which the Navy would call a boatswain’s mate, until the riverine unit I was supposed to join sent all their floating toys to the Navy. I was then trained as an 88M Large Wheeled Vehicle Operator, but you shoot expert on the rifle range after wrecking one little truck and suddenly you’re in the infantry. 11B Infantry. It ended up being a blast, pun intended, and I enjoyed the entire 8 ½ years I served.
When I got home, after being injured from one to many concussions, I noticed adapting to normality. I ended up getting treatment at the Veterans Affairs hospital, where I was diagnosed with severe PTSD, which they classified as chronic and combat related. As part of the treatment, I started a writing therapy program with my doctor and I was off to the races!
You’ve mentioned multiple times that JR Handley is actually a 2-person husband-and-wife effort. Tell me more about that.
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 wife and my mother then go behind me to fix the issues of my poor grammar. They then clean up the complications stemming from my anomic aphasia. – 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.
The first novel I ever wrote is actually the first one I published. I’m most proud of my growth as an author and teller of stories, though I know I won’t ever be done learning. As long as I don’t stagnate or go backwards, I’ll be satisfied each time. After that, it’s up to the readers to judge the merits of the work.
The Sleeping Legion is (if I’m not mistaken) a cross between a spin-off and a partner series to Tim Taylor’s Human Legion. How did the partnership come about, and how’s it been?
I stumbled into Tim’s universe after I’d been introduced to the Kindle by my neurologist, who was trying to get me to read again. Because of brain injury, 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.
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. 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.
With your military expertise, the Legion series seems like a perfect fit – what are the moments, in the books, that you’re proudest of for their military realism?
I would say that there is a tendency to write military science fiction that is devoid of the realities of human nature. Men are afraid, people don’t always act as they’re trained to and war is a dirty, nasty business. And more than that, there is a lot of boredom, sandwiched between moments of extreme action.
I think that what I’m the proudest of is showing that, which you see a lot of on the peripheries of my novels. I mean, obviously, we want to entertain, so I focus on the action. But, I do try to show the space marines in my novels as people first and foremost. They get scared, some run from the battlefield, and some really do run to the sound of the guns.
Further, nobody is perfect and my main character makes plenty of mistakes along the way. And because it’s military science fiction, and their consequences for errors on the battlefield, people die as a result. While I try to avoid gratuitous violence, I don’t shy away from letting you know what’s going on.
Do you feel your service in the US Army added a veneer of authenticity to your writing?
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. 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.
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.
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 diagrammed 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.
The Sleeping Legion’s doing really well, by your numbers – 10,000 on the first copy, 5,000 on the second, congrats! You’ve sold more than most traditionally published authors in their lifetimes. What was your process of getting these books out and onto Amazon success, and how does that success make you feel?
Success you say? It doesn’t feel that way, and I don’t know that I ever want to get there. But seriously, thank you for the kind words.
My philosophy is that you’re never successful, because no matter where you are in your career, there is always higher up you can go. When you stop having goals to shoot for, you become complacent. Complacency is death in any professional venue, so I don’t ever want to get there.
As for my process of publication, all of that was handled by Tim so I didn’t have to worry about it. He did the marketing, advertising, and key words and such for Amazon. For my part, I had a blog, Facebook, and Twitter account which I started months before the novel was released where I worked on my branding and social media platform. I believe that all of this contributed to creating a successful first launch, and letting me do well enough that Amazon picked up my novel and started pimping it for me. The rest, as they say, is history.
How has it impacted your life? And what would you pass on to new writers?
Well, it’s still too new to fully process how I feel about it. If it’s a dream, then please don’t pinch me because I don’t want to wake up. As for whom I thank for helping me along the way, well my family, my boss and my amazing editorial team! What the adventure of writing HAS done is make me more analytical of the storytelling process.
As for advice, I’ll repeat the only useful advice on writing there is. Write.
That’s it, keep writing and when you’ve finished the first project move on to the next. You can’t edit a blank page! And secondly, find a reputable editor who will help you polish your diamond in the rough until it shines.
If you need a good copy editor, I couldn’t recommend Thomas Weaver any higher. He does my copy editing and works fast, you’ll appreciate the work he does. And if you’re looking for a good developmental editor, check out Lauren Moore. And finally, if you want to follow a editor and blogger as he shines a light into the trenches of the editorial war on bad grammar, check out QuintessentialEditor.
What’s surprised you about your writing experience over the past few 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 nonetheless.
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 hear another human voice.
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. 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 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.
What have your core lessons been from the experience of being an indie author?
So, right now I would consider myself a hybrid author since I write for a small publishing house. I write in the Human Legion Universe, written by author Tim C. Taylor. He is the publisher of record, so I haven’t had to do the backend stuff. However, I’m not really traditionally published because I never bothered to approach an agent or one of the Big 6 publishing houses.
What I have learned is that there is a huge community of authors and readers who love to nerd out with you. If you write a novel, a good one, then the audience is there. The publishing world isn’t a zero-sum game, there is room for everyone. And there is a niche for everything, you just have to find your tribe.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I’ve learned exactly how much goes into the book making process AFTER the author hits “The End” on his or her book baby. Wow, but I have a whole new respect for the community of authors I barely qualify to join.
And what’s next on the horizon for you?
Well, I have a novelette that takes place between book one and two of my series that will hit Amazon at the end of March and book three will likely be released in April. Then I will finish the last two novels in the Sleeping Legion Series, and loop the story back into the main series.
Aside from the Sleeping Legion series, I’ve submitted to two short stories to anthologies and I’ve already heard that the I’ve gotten the green light for the Roswell Anthology from Tickety Boo Press. The second short story is being co-written by my editor and I, but we haven’t finished it yet. As soon as we’re done editing book three, it’ll be finished and submitted to Chris Kennedy for final approval. After that I have notebooks full of ideas! Where will the muse take me? I honestly don’t know!
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
I’ll still be writing, hopefully I’ll even have more time since both my sons will be teenagers. Wow, now I feel old. Thank you, Yudha, thank you! But yes, I will still be writing, though in universes of my own creation!
What do 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 . . .
If you had to list your top ten favorite books, what would they be?
Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith
The Ember War series by Richard Fox
The Empire of Bones Saga by Terry Mixon
The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
The Belgariad series by David Eddings
The Human Legion series by Tim C Taylor
The Four Horsemen Universe by Chris Kennedy and Mark Wandrey
The Honor Harrington series by David Weber
These were in no specific order! And you’ve likely caught on that I love series!
JR Handley lives at jrhandley.com.
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