9/11 bank robbery spawns Maria Antokas’ debut novel ‘Sweet Millions’
Special for the Hellenic News of America
Maria Antokas was the editor of her college newspaper. Until recently, that was the extent of his writing experience.
Now she’s taken one of the most memorable events in modern American history and used it as the backdrop for her first work of fiction, “Sweet Millions.”
“Sweet Millions” is a detective novel that took six years to write.
“I love telling stories. I love creating characters, ”says the former banker, now a teacher and business owner, and a Presvytera – married to the father. Dimitrios Antokas of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bethesda, Maryland.
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“The heroine is this 40-year-old ex-banker whose past catches up with her…”, says Maria.
The plot begins during September 11, when a major bank robbery occurred on Wall Street during all the confusion. Time is up. The heroine, Danielle Mendow, whose bank was involved, thought all was forgotten until she became a suspect in the heist and charged with murder. Danielle must clear herself by finding the missing money and the murderer.
In the novel, the authors managed to embezzle $10 million from the bank during the chaos of 9/11, when many corporate documents were destroyed in the attack.
Years later, in his novel, one of the characters involved in the theft felt guilty and wanted to confess. Just 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 landscape.
The main character of “Sweet Millions” happens to be a descendant of the family that founded his 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 plot overtones, the novel is actually a light read.
“He has a great sense of humor. There are other quirky characters that make it fun to read,” Maria says.
The origins of Sweet Millions
The idea for the novel originated with a group of writers at her husband’s church, St. George’s Church in Bethesda, Maryland.
Maria was invited to join the woman who leads the group, Patty Apostilidis, herself an author with an MSA in writing.
It was his guidance and encouragement, along with feedback from the rest of the band, that made “Sweet Millions” possible.
It started when Apostilidis asked the band to write the first chapter of a book.
Maria has worked in international correspondent banking and knows how money is moved. 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 this tragic event personally and professionally.
A banking mystery began to develop using these money laundering ideas and the confusion she witnessed during 9/11.
Maria wrote her first chapter and presented it at a meeting of a group of writers. They were intrigued.
So she wrote more chapters as the group continued to come together, follow the story, and provide feedback.
“Finally, after six years, I said, ‘Okay, I have to end this thing.'”
Ironically, the group, which had supported the book until its conclusion, hated the final chapter.
“Actually, I 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 had no idea how the story would end. She wanted a happy ending but didn’t know how each character would turn out.
“My characters really drove the story,” she says. “That’s kind of what made it fun.”
There’s also a friendly nod to Maria’s Greek origins. There’s an older Greek woman caring for Danielle Mendow, the grandmother-inspired comic relief in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
“A very formidable character,” says Maria. “Very funny. Very Greek.
Maria wanted to self-publish “Sweet Millions” through Amazon to get the book out 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 buy?”
“Sweet Millions” received numerous five-star reviews. It’s not in the top 10 but it does consistently and everyone who reads it seems to love it, says Maria.
After experiencing the direct difficulty of marketing a book, Maria decided to give new authors a boost by creating a small publishing house, Atalanta Publishing, which can help them promote their work.
“There’s no money in it, so most of the time I just do it to help someone.”
For less than $1,000, his company will help authors format their writing for Amazon, develop a book cover and help with marketing.
Maria is also the owner of CapitalWise Consulting LLC, which provides personal finance courses and has speakers to talk to 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 really hit hard.” But she only earned $11,000 a year and still lived at home.
She was disillusioned after five or six months.
A temporary job came up, a desk job 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 to represent the bank, a unique job at the time for a woman.
“At that time, it was only men who travelled. I would go to hotels, no hair dryers, no mirrors, no ironing boards. Everything was aimed at male travellers.
She pursued her master’s degree in economics at NYU and completed a 30-year career.
After 9/11, she decided national banking was probably a safer career choice.
At that time, she was married. When her husband was transferred to a church in New Jersey, Maria went to work for a regional bank.
When he transferred to Washington, DC, she started working for Chevy Chase Bank, but gave it up when it was taken over by Capital One.
This time, she is going into teaching.
She has been on the faculty at Bullis School, a K-12 private school, for eight years.
“Now what I do, I love.”
She draws on her real-life banking experience to teach personal finance and leads the school’s entrepreneurship program.
Teaching personal finance inspired her to co-author a helpful personal finance textbook, “Don’t Call It a Budget,” which is still used in her classes.
“I love it because it’s an on-the-ground experience rather than a theoretical experience and I think it’s much more useful. You can tell them what the real world was like financially because you were there.
The entrepreneurship program teaches high school students to create businesses that they launch in high school. Now college kids are jumping on board.
“Middle school students are fascinating students, very creative, totally unfiltered. And I really appreciate them. They take it very seriously. »
At the end of the year, the teams compete in a shark tank event, with the winning team receiving a $10,000 prize that they can apply to their business.
Maria, who grew up in New Jersey, holds Labor Day close to her heart. She met her husband at a Labor Day party in Brooklyn. The following Labor Day, they were engaged. The next one, they got married.
Three months after the birth of their first son, John, Fr. Dimitrios was ordained a priest.
Their two families come from Chios, from the center and from the north. The union made both of their parents very happy.
Today Fr. Dimitrios and Maria’s eldest son John, 32, lives in New York City and owns a transportation and urban planning company. Her youngest son, Elliot, 30, is a CPA with his own company living nearby in Cleveland Park.
“So I have two entrepreneurs in my family,” says Maria proudly.