Marisa Wolf may be the only author at Dragon Con who was once head-butted by an alligator—and survived! A black belt in tae kwon do, she writes science fiction, fantasy, and many points between. In 2022, she made her solo editorial debut with The Valkyries Initiative.
Daily Dragon (DD): Marisa, please tell us about your first publication.
Marisa Wolf (MW): My first published short story was “Under the Skin” in the Four Horsemen Universe (4HU) published in 2017, in the anthology The Good, the Bad, and the Merc from Chris Kennedy Publishing, and my first novel was in the same universe: Assassin, co-authored with the fabulous Kacey Ezell. My debut solo novel, Beyond Enemies, is coming out February 6, 2024, from Baen Books.
DD: What spurred your interest in that military science fiction (milsf)?
MW: I love the stories that come from blending genres around milsf—look at The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, Star Wars, the Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher for wildly different approaches with incredible results. There are so many interesting avenues to character development, culture, and society…and blowing things up on paper is super fun. Getting to dig into milsf as an author with the 4HU, and co-writing with two military veterans Kacey Ezell and Chris Kennedy, has taught me a ton about the roots of some of my favorite tropes—and a lot of fun ways to play with them.
DD: You and Kacey Ezell have collaborated several times. Will you share your collaborative process?
MW: I’ve been writing with Kacey Ezell since our fanfiction days, and I have leveled up so much as an author getting to learn from and with her. Each of our books has been a little different—first we outline and after outlining Assassin, um, twice, now we almost always remember to write down what we’re brainstorming, and then we carve out our approach. For Assassin, we each took two viewpoint characters and braided their arcs together once we were done. For Hunter, she wrote her parts over a disciplined number of months and I binge-wrote in 6 weeks in a panic to catch up with her. Sometimes we write “fanfic style” where we write a scene together, each of us writing from our own character’s point of view, and then one of us goes back and smooths out the voice and viewpoint narration. Mostly we have a lot of fun and take turns appreciating each other—and then trying to make the other laugh or, ahem, tear up, because we know if we’re getting those emotions from each other, we’ll have a better chance of evoking them in our readers.
DD: What led you to branch out from military science fiction into assassins in the Hit World series?
MW: I love this question because the three books Kacey and I wrote in the milsf 4HU were not super milsf Assassin, Hunter, and Ally—they are about alien assassins who look like cats #catasassins. My other books in the 4HU, with Chris Kennedy and Mark Wandrey, are more milsf, but I like to work the catsassins in there too, so I’ve done a potentially worrying amount of research into assassins and assassination. I mean, a lot of that “research” included watching the best, cheesiest, and tropiest movies on the subject, but details. Hit World is super fun because it’s urban fantasy assassins, and magic weighing in on the mayhem opens up a whole new world of shenanigans.
DD: How do Valkyries fit into that world?
MW: In Hit World, murder is legal if you do all the proper paperwork and payments, and that goes through one organization: LEI. Unfortunately, you can’t be an international assassination squad and not expect some rivals to rise, and along comes Spider, a crime syndicate intending to pull LEI down from the inside. The Valkyries Initiative is formed as a disavowed unit of LEI to counter the Spider, and it’s made up of an inter-dimensional assortment of kickass ladies and some gentlemen, all with their own distinct motivations. In the anthology The Valkyries Initiative, readers are introduced to fifteen possible team members, including two actual Valkyries from their respective dimensions with their own struggles and successes in adapting to “our” world.
DD: Both Hit World and The Four Horsemen are shared universe. What are the biggest challenges and the biggest pleasures of writing in a shared world?
MW: The biggest challenges are keeping up with all the other authors’ awesome books. The 4HU is well over 80 books, and Hit World is growing fast—I love knowing what’s going on in other stories so I can drop easter eggs or find interesting connection points, but it’s a lot to keep up with. It’s also important to make sure to stay in the particular universe lines—you want a reader to think ‘oh yes, this is definitely an x-shared universe book’ while still making it your own. That can be a tricky balance to hold, but totally worth it—because the pleasures for sure outweigh the challenges. I love getting to do character crossovers both getting my grubby hands on some brilliant characters and getting to see some of my favorite creations pop up in other folks’ books, the epic sprawl of a world contributed to by so many talented people, and the different corners of genre you get to tease out because the world is so big. I’m a big fan of the advice ‘write what you want to read’ and I’ve also gotten to apply that by ‘play in worlds you’re a fan of’—I mean, I did get my start in fanfiction, after all. Shared universes are getting to flex that muscle in a whole new way.
DD: I can’t wait any longer to ask you about the alligator incident. Will you tell us about it?
MW: It might be better told in person and I have a LOT of fun telling it in person, so folks can always feel free to ask!, but basically, when I was a young, innocent teacher, I voyaged into the bayous of Louisiana to get a fun picture for my baby brother’s Flat Stanley project. An enthusiastic tour guide threw their 4ish foot boat-gator at me, and I, in a surprising moment of athleticism that was also breathtakingly stupid, caught the alligator. Please picture this said in all caps, italics, bold, underlined, etc.: I caught the alligator! Why??? I’m not good at catching things! But here we are, young, innocent teacher gripping momentarily airborne reptile as though her life depended on it… then after I breathed, I figured no one would have thrown an alligator at me if it would hurt me, right? So I loosened my grip.
What. An. Idiot. The alligator sensed my weakness and immediately reared back, slamming his not-at-all-soft-no-really-harder-than-you-think head against mine. A lot happened in the next few seconds—sunglasses flew off the top of my head, I grabbed hard onto the alligator again rather than letting it go like any sane person would, asked to get the dang picture taken already, got the picture, and successfully divested myself of the alligator by shoving him back at the tour guide without too much more injury—to me, the alligator was very smug about the whole thing and not injured at all.
So I bled a little, and laughed with real hysteria, and my little brother totally won the Flat Stanley competition and was king of second grade for a week.
DD: Nothing like a happy ending! Speaking of hard contact, what led you to take up Tae Kwon Do?
MW: When I was an RA in college, one of my managers taught Tae Kwon Do in our building. I’d done cardio kickboxing over the summer and was missing it, and he—Marine, black belt, very high expectations—invited me to try the class. It was the hardest I’d ever worked and I looooved it. I earned my blue belt the summer after I graduated, and then trained a little while teaching, but it wasn’t until I started working for a nonprofit that I felt like I had time to really dedicate to training. So five years later, leading up to my wedding, I got back into it—again learning from a Marine with very high expectations—and after another five years I earned my black belt. I am sooo out of practice these days, but I love Tae Kwon Do for both mind and body—I always feel more centered after a good practice!
DD: Your website says you had a career in education. What did that entail?
MW: It’s twenty-plus years working to provide paths to better educational outcomes for all students. I taught middle school for a few years, which was one of the best and also most exhausting jobs I’ve ever had. My kids were amazing, and middle school science is super fun—also I ran a handful of extracurriculars, and when I coached cheerleading I got to work in a lot of Tae Kwon Do stretches and strength-building exercises, so it was wins all around. After that I moved into the nonprofit world, and worked on recruiting teachers, then teacher quality and certification, across different cities and states. One of my favorite jobs was launching a program that worked with high schoolers to help them weigh their post-graduation paths. From there I had the opportunity to be a Chief Program Officer for a company that focused on coaching and developing school principals, and then the whole pandemic thing happened. I’ve spent the last three years partnering with school districts and leaders who are navigating this whole new reality for education and striving to come out with better systems than we went into it with.
DD: You’ve done a number of comics-related online panels. How long have you been reading comics, and which ones are your current favorites?
MW: I’m a second-generation nerd, so I’ve been reading comics since my dad trusted me to hold them. When I was in middle school, a comic book store opened in my hometown and that was the end for me. I got super into X-Men all eleventy-billion titles, I especially loved Excalibur and Fantastic Four, and then the comic shop owner put one of the Sandman graphic novels in front of me and I had a whole new obsession. I am horridly out of date on comics, but I’ve heard some interesting stuff about the latest X-Men run and the new Thor and am thinking about picking them up…
DD: According to your website bio, you live in an RV. What’s the most fun part of that?
MW: Traveling with the weather and spending time outside! We’re three years in and over the last two years have been north for summer and south for winter, and I really like being migratory. I’ve spent so much more time walking on the beach—and have a new collection of shark teeth to show for it!—and in the woods, and also because we’re mobile we get to see more of some of our favorite folks who live all over the place. I’d be tempted to do it forever if I didn’t have a whole lot of books in storage I miss…
DD: What are you currently reading or have recently read that’s giving you a lot of nerd joy?
I’ve been on a fantasy kick lately maybe because Circular Transportation Device of Minutes and Hours is coming back and I get to talk about it this weekend?, and just finished reading Ebony Gate by Julia Vee and Ken Bebelle which was incredible. I’m in the middle of Lord of a Shattered Land by Howard Andrew Jones he’s also at this year’s con! and it’s hard to tear myself away to do responsible things like get ready for Dragon Con I should have learned my lesson from buying Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin at Dragon Con one year and wanting to lock myself in my room to read—if you see me looking sleep-deprived, it’s probably Howard Andrew Jones’ book to blame and not my inability to leave Dragon Con shenanigans at a decent hour…
DD: What do you suggest as a starting point for someone who wants to explore your work?
MW: If they love milsf: World Enders, which I wrote with Chris Kennedy. If they love catsassins with a little bit of murder mystery: Assassin, with Kacey Ezell. For urban fantasy, The Valkyries Initiative. If it’s more of a fantasy jam, my short in Onward LibertyCon, “The Bookseller” is about to spin off into a whole new novel. And of course if they’re interested in some milsf/space opera/conspiracy theories all the way down with a little humor, they can pre-order Beyond Enemies. For immediate gratification, and to check out the world/characters in Beyond Enemies, I strongly recommend the fabulous anthology Chicks in Tank Tops from Baen, edited by Esther Friesner and Jason Cordova, both attending this Dragon Con! My story “Next Question” refused to leave my head afterward, so I wrote a novel.
You can find more information about Marisa and her work by visiting her website, www.marisawolf.net, or Instagram: @bookdogs