Kika Hatzopoulou holds an MFA for writing for children from the New School and currently splits her time between London and her native Greece. Her debut YA fantasy, Threads That Bind, is out May 30 from Razorbill. Here, Hatzopoulou recalls learning the intricacies of writing in English as a teen from her favorite YA novels, first creating fanfiction and later crafting stories in her own voice.
I have always been a re-teller. I started writing stories as a young child, often inspired by books or movies I’d seen and the subsequent need to tell them differently or focus on a side character or explore a smaller element of that world. I wrote these stories on pieces of paper in Greek, my native language, and stored them in a drawer in my desk, never to be seen again.
Then, when I was about 10, I discovered The Princess Diaries. I fell head over heels in love with Mia Thermopolis, her voice-y narration, her humor, her friendships and romances. I read the first three books in Greek with a dreamy grin on my face and was elated to hear there were many more in the works and plenty of other Meg Cabot books already published in the U.S. and U.K. I waited and waited, but the Greek publisher that had picked up the series had no immediate plans to publish the rest.
So, I put on my best please-please-please face and pleaded with my uncle, who runs an English-language school in Greece, to order the next books for me in English. At that point, I had been studying English for a few years, as most children in Greece do. We start learning the alphabet in first grade and by the end of our final years of high school, we are expected to take the proficiency level exams, which—for some context—are the same ones that qualify you to be an English teacher in most countries. I had read some books for early readers, but never something as long or complicated as a YA novel.
To my delight, I found that I could understand a lot and keep track of the important bits: dialogue, plot, romance. But I wanted the full experience; I started looking up the words I didn’t know and taking notes on turns of phrases that sounded interesting, lines that made me laugh, narrative tricks that I enjoyed (remember all those lists Mia made in between diary entries?).
Little by little, and entirely without realizing it, I began teaching myself how to write in English. I started experimenting by creating YA rom-coms that, in hindsight, were fanfiction inspired by The Princess Diaries and my other favorite series by Cabot—The Mediator and Avalon High. I copied her way of writing, getting more and more familiar with literary language. I already knew a fair amount of grammar and syntax, of course, but I’d been taught with the goal of passing the proficiency exams, which doesn’t exactly reflect the complex and multifaceted nature of fiction. Just think of all the different verbs in English that denote a specific way of speaking—what publishing calls “dialogue tags.” A new world was opening up before me, filled with whines and growls and giggles, but also with narrative elements such as fragmented sentences, multiple POVs, and flashbacks.
By then, it was the golden age of YA. In Greece, bookstores filled with the English editions of now-classic YA fantasy series such as Twilight, The Hunger Games, Graceling, The Shadowhunters, Eragon, and Inkheart. I saved all my allowance for books and started dedicating my summers to writing. Between the ages of 13 and 18, I completed roughly one full-length manuscript every summer. It was a ritual: on the day after school closed for the summer, I went shopping for a large A4 notebook and matching pen, then each morning before going to the beach and each evening after dinner, I would sit at the table on the balcony and write, heedless of the heat and the onslaught of mosquitoes.
Those summer stories slowly moved from fanfiction to wholly original work, but the idea of re-telling remained: I kept a list of new words and expressions as I read, which I then employed in my own writing. I drew inspiration from other books, from movies and TV, but also from myth, fairy tales and the stories of my family. I used the tropes that I so loved reading and figured out ways to make them my own.
As I went on to study English in undergrad and creative writing as a graduate, these practices stayed with me. Reading critically and actively seeking new knowledge have been the foundation of my work as a writer, especially as someone writing in their non-native language. I still make mistakes—homonyms are my personal nemesis—but now creating in English feels like second nature. In the past few years, in fact, I’ve been consciously trying to bridge the gap between the two languages in my prose, borrowing words and metaphors, playing with syntax, and bringing Greek narrative elements into my writing.
My debut novel, Threads That Bind, was born out of this need to retell stories on my own terms. The story brings together my native Greek culture—in the form of its main character, a descendant of the Greek Fates in a half-sunken city inspired by Athens—and tropes I’ve always loved and wanted to reinvent, such as the noir mystery, the soulmate romance, the post-(climate)-apocalyptic setting.
The path I chose has been paved with challenges, for it makes writing a never-ending education, an exploration, an ouroboric cycle of telling and retelling—but I wouldn’t have it any other way.