Special to the Hellenic News of America
Maria Antokas was the editor for her college newspaper. Until recently, that was the extent of her writing experience.
Now she’s taken one of the most memorable events in modern American history and used it as a backdrop for her first work of fiction, “Sweet Millions.”
“Sweet Millions” is a murder mystery novel that took six years to write.
“I love telling stories. I love building characters,” says the former banker, now a teacher and business owner, and a Presvytera – married to Fr. Dimitrios Antokas of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bethesda, Maryland.
“The heroine is this 40-something ex-banker whose past kind of catches up to her…” Maria says.
The plot originates during 9/11 when a big bank heist occurred on Wall Street during all the confusion. Time passed. The heroine, Danielle Mendow, whose bank was involved, thought it was all forgotten until she becomes a suspect in the heist and accused of murder. Danielle has to exonerate herself by finding the missing money, and the murderer.
In the novel, the perpetrators managed to embezzle $10 million from the bank during the chaos of 9/11 when many corporate records were destroyed in the attack.
Years later, in her novel, one of the characters involved in the theft felt guilty and wanted to confess. Right before his confession, he was found dead in a hotel room.
If 9/11 is the event that triggers the action in the book, the town of West Mendow paints the scenery.
The “Sweet Millions” main character happens to be a descendant of the family that founded her fictional hometown of West Mendow, Maryland, northwest of Washington, D.C.
“I really wanted to build a fantasy town so you could have a lot of characters in that town that could come and go and make the story a lot more interesting.”
The town is modeled after a town outside of Washington, D.C. where Maria and her husband, Father Dimitri Antokas, live.
Despite the heavier overtones in the plot, the novel is actually a light read.
“It has a great sense of humor. There are other eccentric characters that make it fun to read,” Maria says.
Sweet Millions origins
The idea for the novel grew out of a writer’s group at her husband’s church, St. George’s Church in Bethesda, Maryland.
Maria was asked to join by the woman who heads the group, Patty Apostilidis, an author herself with an MSA in writing.
It was with her guidance and encouragement, with feedback from the rest of the group, which made “Sweet Millions” possible.
It began when Apostilidis asked the group to write the first chapter of a book.
Maria worked in international correspondent banking and knows how money is moved around. Sometimes she and other bankers would discuss ‘what if’ scenarios about money laundering and bank fraud.
She was also a “student” of 9/11 because she worked in the neighborhood at ground zero and felt very connected to that tragic event personally and professionally.
A banking mystery started to develop using those ideas of money laundering and the confusion she witnessed during 9/11.
Maria came up with her first chapter and introduced it at a writer’s group meeting. They were intrigued.
So she wrote more chapters as the group continued to meet, follow the story, and offer their feedback.
“Finally after six years I said, ‘all right, I have to end this thing.’”
Ironically, the group, who had supported the book all the way to its conclusion, hated the last chapter.
“I actually had to rewrite the last chapter. Maybe they didn’t want it to end, or they didn’t like the note It ended on.”
Like many writers, Maria didn’t know how the story would end. She wanted a happy ending but didn’t know how each character would turn out.
“My characters really ran the story,” she says. “That’s kind of what made it fun.”
There is also a friendly nod to Maria’s Greek background. There’s an older Greek woman that takes care of Danielle Mendow, the comic relief modeled after the grandmother in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
“A very formidable character,” Maria says. “Very funny. Very Greek.”
Maria wanted to self-publish “Sweet Millions” through Amazon to get the book out there quickly.
Self-publishing is easy. Marketing is not.
“You’re there competing with millions of other authors trying to sell their books so how do you make your book unique that everyone should be buying?”
“Sweet Millions” has gotten a lot of great five-star reviews. It’s not in the top 10 but it’s doing steady and everyone who reads it seems to love it, Maria says.
After experiencing the first-hand difficulty of getting a book marketed, Maria decided to give new authors a boost by creating a small publishing company, Atalanta Publishing that can help them promote their work.
“There’s no money in it so most of the time I just do it to help somebody out.”
For under $1,000 her company will help authors format their writing for Amazon, develop a book cover and help with marketing.
Maria also owns CapitalWise Consulting LLC which provides personal finance instruction and has speakers available to talk with groups about the importance of financial literacy.
Maria graduated from Barnard College in economics, but with an interest in magazine publishing. She worked as an editorial assistant at Cosmopolitan Magazine.
“I thought I hit it really big.” But she was only making $11,000 a year and still living at home.
She was disillusioned after five or six months.
A stop gap job came along, clerical work for a bank.
After three months they promoted her. Within a year she was an officer at the bank.
“It was very glamorous.”
She traveled around the world representing the bank, a unique job those days for a woman.
“At that time, it was just men that used to travel. I’d go stay in hotels, no hair blowers, no mirrors, no ironing board. Everything was geared toward male travelers.”
She pursued her master’s in Economics at NYU and filled out a 30-year career.
After 9/11 she decided domestic banking was probably a safer career choice.
By then she was married. When her husband was transferred to a church in New Jersey, Maria went to work for a regional bank.
When he was transferred to Washington, D.C., she started working for Chevy Chase Bank but gave that up when it was bought by Capital One.
This time, she went into teaching.
She’s been on the faculty at the Bullis School, a private K-12 school, for eight years.
“Now what I do I absolutely love.”
She draws on her real life banking experience to teach personal finance and heads up the school’s entrepreneurship program.
Teaching personal finance inspired her to co-author a useful personal finance workbook, “Don’t Call It a Budget,” still used in her classes.
“I love it because it’s on-the-ground experience as opposed to theoretical and I think that’s a lot more useful. You can tell them what the real world was like on the financial side because you were there.”
The entrepreneurship program teaches high school students how to create businesses, which they launch in their senior year. Now middle schoolers are jumping on board.
“Middle school students are fascinating students, very creative, totally unfiltered. And I really enjoy them. They take it very seriously.”
At the end of the year, teams compete against each other in a shark tank event with the winning team receiving a $10,000 prize they can apply to their business.
Maria, who grew up in New Jersey, holds Labor Day in her heart. She met her husband at a Labor Day party in Brooklyn. The next Labor Day, they were engaged. The one after that, they were married.
Three months after their first son, John, was born, Fr. Dimitrios was ordained as a priest.
Both of their families come from Chios, from the central part and in the north. The union made both their parents very happy.
Today, Fr. Dimitrios and Maria’s oldest son John, 32, lives in New York and owns an Urban Transportation and Planning Company. Her younger son, Elliot, 30, is a CPA with his own firm living nearby in Cleveland Park.
“So I have two entrepreneurs in my family,” Maria says proudly.