Tonia Markou Interview – Author of ‘For Hugo’, Second Prize Winner
- One of the things that amazed us about ‘For Hugo’ was how it contained so many rich believable characters and relationships for such a short piece. What’s your process when it comes to crafting characters, both major and minor?
Thank you for the compliment! Characters are the heart and soul of every story, that’s why it’s crucial for me to get them right. I might have an usual process when it comes to creating characters. When I start writing, I kind of become my characters. It’s similar to acting, which I have always been interested in. I take on a role and go with it. I imagine what this character would say and do in a certain situation. I round it all off by giving everyone something specific to differentiate them from the others. To me, it’s important that they have interesting personalities and traits, be it humor, a vivid detail, the way they speak and see the world, or vulnerability and flaws which make them human and relatable. I love writing dialogue since characters especially come alive while interacting with each other. It’s a fantastic opportunity to show what they’re made of, and I’m glad the result was convincing.
- Are you more of a meticulous plotter, or a seat-of-your-pants style writer?
For short fiction I’m more of a pantser, as in I start writing and see where the stories and characters take me. I have a vague idea of what I want to convey, but that’s about it. I found that for flash fiction I write my best work when I don’t censor myself and just let the words flow.
As far as longer fiction is concerned, I need some kind of road map to guide me, otherwise I might get lost and write myself into a corner, which means more work during the revising phase, which I don’t enjoy as much as the drafting or writing part. So I’d say I fall into the famous plantser category.
- Your narrator, Xander, is autistic, something you convey very authentically through his way of thinking. Do you have any personal experience with autistic teenagers and did you conduct any further research prior to writing this story?
Thank you. My younger cousin in Greece has Asperger’s. He’s a sweet and very smart kid. I didn’t have any direct experience with autism before I met him for the first time eight years ago. He and his family were facing challenges due to misunderstandings in communication or misreading of emotions as well as prejudice that affected their everyday life.
He inspired me to try my hand at a story with a neurodiverse protagonist.
I knew it wouldn’t be easy to believably tackle a sensitive topic I didn’t have a lot of personal experience with. The more important it was to me to do my research, which involved reading many articles and personal accounts on the internet, and to post the draft to my online writing group for feedback.
- Your prose has a wonderful sense of humour. Is funny writing something that comes naturally for you, or do you have to work at it?
I do consider myself a funny person, and I try to include humor in all of my stories if it fits the tone of course, so yes, I believe it comes naturally, especially in dialogue. Comic relief in fiction is something I enjoy to read. I suspect adding humor reflects my outlook on life in general, that despite all the negativity in this world, there’s also plenty of hope and joy.
- What other writers out there inspire and amaze you?
Tough question, since there’s so much talent out there. I’m a big Stephen King and Joe Hill fan. Their characters are so well-rounded and Hill always comes up with such creative and imaginative plots. Other writers’ work I admire are Neal Shusterman, Brigid Kemmerer, Pierce Brown, Jandy Nelson, Lois Lowry and Laura Ruby, just to name a few.
- I loved Xander’s obsession with reptiles and the animal imagery you wove through his narration. What was your approach to the importance of pets in this piece?
Animals are adorable, and the way characters, or people in general for that matter, treat their pets reveals a lot about their personalities. I wanted to explore different sides of Xander. We can see that he cares deeply for Hugo, we sense his affection for his pet lizard, but at the same time he struggles a little when it comes to social interaction with others. It was a nice contrast, showing that there are more sides to autism, that it’s not just black and white, but multifaceted and complex. Moreover, pets don’t discriminate. They accept you for who you are and love you unconditionally. At the end, Hugo brings Xander and his stepdad together, and he even succeeds in transforming an embittered Mr. Sakoulis.
- Being a polygot, how many different languages do you speak and how many languages do you use for creative writing?
English is my third language. I was born to Greek parents in Germany, so I speak Greek, German and a little bit of Spanish and French. I used to write in German, especially poems as a teenager, and I have an unfinished fantasy novel I’d love to come back to at some point, but in my opinion English is a more flexible, more imaginative language, that’s why I chose to stick with it for my stories, even though writing in a foreign language definitely has its challenges.
- What’s next for you in the writing world?
I’m currently editing my first YA novel. I want to get it ready for beta readers soon, then I can start the exciting and daunting querying process this year. In the meantime, I love distracting myself with flash and short fiction in various genres.