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Legends and Tea Author Spotlight: John Kowalski

Heavenly Places: Coram Deo

written by

 John Kowalski

Hello, Adventurers! Welcome to the first official Legends and Tea Author Spotlight, wherein I interview fellow authors about their recent releases, writing experiences, and advice for aspiring writers and feature it in my newsletter, Legends and Tea, which is out every second Tuesday of each month.

John Kowalski is a fellow Michigan author whom I’ve known for about a decade now; he had worked with my husband Phil once upon a time. I remember fondly his articles for Word of the Nerd, and I’ve recently gotten to enjoy his novel Heavenly Places: Coram Deo. This inspiring book, which is the first in a series, mixes fantasy and faith in a completely unique and imaginative way—a perfect read for all of the Christian readers out there, especially those who enjoy LitRPG-inspired stories.

Without further ado, the interview:

Audra: Thanks for joining me for the first official Legends and Tea Author Spotlight. As an introduction for my readers, would you please tell me a little about your writing background?

John: I have mostly written for blogs, online magazines, and websites in the past. The longest stint was the few years I spent writing about books, comic books, movies, and video games for Word of the Nerd. From time to time, I would have an idea that would consume me for a while, but always seemed to lose the plot before I could get it finished.

Friends called it writer’s block, maybe it was, but it felt more like I just lost interest in the characters or story. In my mind I thought, If I couldn’t bring myself to write it, who would read it? It wasn’t until I imagined this story that everything just came together. I have had no issues writing about these characters and this world.   

Audra: Now, your book Heavenly Places: Coram Deo is a finalist in the 2024 Imadjinn Awards for Best Faith-Based Novel. That’s absolutely amazing, and well deserved! Best of luck in the contest. Can you tell us about your journey here, what prompted you to begin writing fantasy?

John: Thank you so much! I think everyone who has ever competed for an award has said it was an honor just to be considered and it is true. I was floored when I scanned the Imaginarium email and saw my book and name there. It still hurts when you don’t win, though. I just found out today that I didn’t win a 2024 Book Fest Award. I did get an Honorable Mention in the Christian Fantasy genre. I didn’t even know I was a finalist for the award, and it still hurt. Maybe in July I’ll get a win with Imadjinn, maybe I won’t. God gets all the glory either way.

I think fantasy was in my blood from birth. I grew up immersing myself in every book, comic book, movie, and game that would take me to a new world. When friends introduced me to Dungeons & Dragons at about twelve, I was all in. I started dreaming up worlds, characters, and adventures. Eventually the game groups ended for various reasons, my connection to worlds of fantasy never did.

Audra: Every author seems to have particular habits when they sit down for a writing session, whether it’s a favorite background music, a particular desk, or a cup of coffee. What are your preferences, do you have one thing you can’t do without?

John: Oh yes, the cup of hot coffee is essential, though I do seem to forget about it for long periods of time when I get lost in the story. My wife, Wendy, bought me a massive Yeti just so my coffee would stay hot longer. Best gift ever! I do prefer my computer at home. It has two screens, so I don’t have to toggle away from the manuscript. I have a notes file open on the second screen with cast descriptions and important events for easy access. I’ll also have multiple research tabs open on that screen. The main screen is just the manuscript. Otherwise, I prefer as few distractions as possible when writing or editing.

Audra: Your second book, Solus Deus, is currently in the works. Do you have any hints about what happens in this installment?

John: Yes! I am excited that the first draft of Solus Deus is completed. I’m currently polishing the manuscript in expectation of a September release. Coram Deo was about introducing the world, the conflict, the characters, and the theme of Coram Deo itself. It means ‘before the face of God’ so the idea is that whatever we do as Christians should be done as if God is right beside us through it, because he is!

The title for the second book, Solus Deus, means ‘only God’. I step up the stakes in this book and it becomes clear to the characters, and hopefully the reader, that ‘only God’ can get them through it all. Judah and Haven are surrounded by enemies. War is inevitable for the besieged followers of Adonai. Like all wars this one creates countless refugees, orphans, and widows. This theme is huge in my life as the financial manager for House of Providence, a non-profit Mental Health Stabilization Facility for kids in the foster care system. Our motto is ‘Until every child has a home” and you’re going to start to see that mentality in Solus Deus.

Our heroes will be torn between staying on the current mission and taking up the cause of the “least of these” spoken about in Matthew 25:40. Fortunately, they will be getting some help. Fellow Christians will know that when you are on mission, you can expect that the enemy will be coming for you. Johnah, Willa, Wren and even Leo will feel that spiritual warfare.

Audra: On that note, what inspired the world of Aeramor in particular?

John: I actually created Aeramor thirty years ago for my D&D group at the time. I worked on it here and there throughout the years. I had no intention of using it in the Heavenly Places game or novels. I planned to plop the continent in a remote area of D&D’s Forgotten Realms. Last summer there was a huge uproar when Wizards of the Coast, the owners of the D&D brand, announced major changes to their open game license. The OGL allows creators to use WOTCs worlds, monsters, etc. in their homebrew games while still retaining personal ownership. When it was floated that they may be pulling back on this creator-owned licensing process, I decided to use Aeramor.

Since then, I have fleshed out the continents and nations of Aeramor. You can find some of the maps and lore on my website for free. I purposely left the details of the world a somewhat blank slate. I want people to be able to insert their own adventures, politics, and stories wherever they want. The Heavenly Places book series takes place on a continent formerly called Gadaron, that God changed to give the people of Aeramor the same lesson and choice that he had given the people of Earth. Overnight Gadaron became a version of the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East in the period shortly before the exile to Babylon. This first series will stay in this new Israel and Judah, but future series will explore the effect of Adonai’s revelation on the rest of Aeramor.    

Audra: Could you tell us a bit about the TTRPG Heavenly Places: A New Thing and how it connects to the book series?

John: In 2021 Wendy and I were in the process of adopting our twelve-year-old daughter. We were fostering her at the time and wanted to do things as a family to connect and grow together. I suggested tabletop roleplaying, but I wanted a wholesome story line appropriate for our family. There are not a lot of options for Christian themed roleplaying campaigns, so I wrote one. We started playing, using the D&D 5e rules, and those adventures became Heavenly Places: Coram Deo. A few months into our game people in our lives heard about the game and wanted to join us.

For the past year we have had 8-12 people adventuring in the Heavenly Places (our basement) every other Saturday night. You’ll see their characters introduced in Solus Deus. I called it “A New Thing” in honor of Isaiah 43:19 as God has decided to do a new thing on Aeramor. “A New Thing” is the first of three planned campaign books. It is available now on Amazon and Drive Thru RPG for the Game Master looking for a family friendly roleplaying campaign to run.        

Audra: As a writer, you must also be a reader. Who are your favorite authors; which ones most inspired your writing style?

John: Some of my all-time favorites are C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Joel Rosenberg, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and George R.R. Martin. Every one of them has influenced me as a person in some way. Some of my more recent favorites are you, and I’m not just saying that. Your writing style is entirely unique, hard to put down, and evokes real emotion. I alternatively want to cheer for and scream at Adella and Kol and I love every minute of it. Another recent favorite is Z.S. Diamanti. I’m not sure how to describe my style. I think I will leave that for the readers to decide. I do hope that whatever my style is now it will change and grow as I continue to write.     

Audra: Oh wow! I’m so honored. Honestly, that means so much to me! Thank you for the kind words.

 Let’s talk a bit about the dreaded topic of writer’s block. Do you ever struggle with it yourself? And if so, how do you overcome it? If it isn’t something you struggle with, why do you think that may be?

John: As I mentioned earlier, I may have suffered with writer’s block with earlier attempts at writing. I still think it was less a block, than a loss of interest in the material. Since I started writing the Heavenly Places game and novels, I have not experienced anything like writer’s block. It may be because the process of creating the game, running the game, and then writing the adventures keeps my mind immersed in the world and characters. It is all very real to me. When I sit down to write I can see the adventure happening in my mind. I consider myself very fortunate in that respect.

Audra: Many writers I meet also struggle with imposter syndrome or feelings of insecurity. Do you have any advice for them about how to overcome such fears and get their novels out there in the world?

John: Imposter syndrome is real! I will be talking with someone about my books and I’m all passion and fire. Then they say they are going to buy one and I’m immediately thinking “what if they hate it?” In my life, I have never been much of a risk taker. I think things through methodically and consider the cost to myself and others before doing anything. Two things pushed me to set fear aside and get this project done, my faith and my family.

God gave me my mind and my writing skills, he gave us a fourth child, Aubree, after we were “empty nesters”. Her presence in our family inspired the game. God also surrounded me with supportive friends and family members. The least I could do was set aside my fear and put out a book that might connect someone with Biblical principles, who may never have heard them before. I may be an imposter, but as the song goes, I’ll always be famous in my Father’s eyes, and that’s enough for me.

Audra: Lastly, your series is very firmly rooted in your faith. I think that’s beautiful. When I was growing up, fantasy stories were often forbidden within some Christian families, mine included, and there was a general fear of things like Dungeons and Dragons as well. Is that something you’ve had to overcome while creating this series, either within yourself or your community?

John: I considered that before publishing any of this material. I grew up in that time-period when people were saying D&D was devil worship. My parents were not so strict as to restrict me from playing the game, but I’m sure they had concerns. The main reason I created the game was to show our daughter that faith isn’t about giving things up, it’s about what we get that we could never earn.

I don’t believe that Christians should separate themselves from the world. If we hide, who will tell those in desperate need, about Jesus and his incredible grace gift of salvation? I also don’t think we can live in sin claiming to do it to reach other sinners. I believe we can take things of the world and do them in a way that honors God. Does music that denigrates women honor God? No, but I don’t have to give up all music. There are plenty of artists that honor God.

In the Heavenly Places, spells become prayers for the faithful. The heroes don’t just hack and slash. They often use non-lethal force giving people a choice to change and leaving the ramifications of that choice to God. In life, whether we are playing a game, writing a book, or going to work every day we should do it as if ‘before the face of God’. Coram Deo!

To follow John’s author journey, find him on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/johnkski

On Facebook at Heavenly Places

And on his website at https://www.johnkowalskiauthor.com/


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