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Mateo Askaripour on Mob Movies, James Baldwin, and the Book that Gave Him Permission to Not Hold Back

by Brendan Dowling on January 7, 2021

Four years after graduating as valedictorian from Bronx High School of Science, Darren Vender coasts through life as manager of a Starbucks in the lobby of a New York skyscraper. He spends his free time hanging out with his childhood sweetheart, Soraya, and best friend, Jason, while evading his mother’s persistent questions about his future. An unexpected career path opens up for him, however, when he impulsively up-sells one of the high profile executives who frequent his store. Soon Darren finds himself thrust into the high-pressure (and very white) start-up world, scrambling to learn a new skill set as a member of their elite sales team while dodging his racist co-workers’ attempts to sabotage him. Darren’s considerable sales acumen quickly vaults him into a world of unimaginable opulence, one that pushes him farther away from his family, friends, and neighborhood. When a tragic event upends Darren’s life, Darren finds unexpected purpose by launching an underground plot to recruit and train a more diverse sales force. With his debut novel Black Buck, Mateo Askaripour has crafted a riotously funny dissection of race, corporate culture, and the American Dream that is also one of the most anticipated books of 2021. The Washington Post called it “an irresistible comic novel about the tenacity of racism in corporate America” and Entertainment Weekly hailed it as “a combination of character study, searing indictment of all the problematics of white corporate culture, and some good old-fashioned enjoyable sarcasm.” Author photo courtesy of Andrew “FifthGod” Askaripour.

In another interview, you referred to Black Buck as “the book you wanted to write.” Can you talk about what you mean by that?

Without taking the bulk of this interview discussing it, I had written two books before Black Buck. I began writing in earnest in 2016 as an outlet while I was working at a tech startup as a director of Sales Development. I managed about thirty people, I was around twenty-four. It was a crazy time. I wasn’t really feeling it anymore, to be honest. For me, writing has always been an outlet. I said, “Let me try to write a book. I’ve always loved fiction. I don’t know how it’s going to go. But let me see.”

I knew in 2016 I wanted to be serious about it. It wasn’t just a hobby, but again I didn’t know how it would go. I wrote one book that was just me figuring out how to write. There was a lot of good energy, but it was all over the place.  I didn’t really know what I was doing. As I was learning more about the industry, I said, “Okay, let me take a second stab at it.” I wrote another book which was basically a version of the first. But that second one was more to really try to get an agent. I said, “Okay, I’ve learned a bit, I’ve spoken with agents, I think that this is a book they’ll want to take on.” It was stupid for me to do that—not stupid because I learned from it, but it was pandering to other people, looking for that external validation as opposed to really following what I thought was right.

When that didn’t work out, I was basically at creative rock bottom. Around November 2018, I just had to have a conversation with myself. I said, “Whether it took five months or five years, I’m committed to writing a book that feels true, to writing a book where I’m not holding anything back, and to writing a book that ideally gets published.” January of 2018 was when I wrote the author’s note for Black Buck. Did I want to get an agent? For sure. But it was a lower priority in my mind than writing a book that felt true to me, a book that I felt could actually help people, and a book where I wasn’t going to hold anything back, so that was what I meant about writing something that felt true.

Who were the writers that were meaningful to you growing up and as a writer?

I was a Scholastic kid. I’d check off all the boxes on Scholastic’s monthly newsletter and get different books. But I don’t think I was reading anything really profound. I was reading Dr. DeSoto. He was a fox or a wolf who was also a dentist. (laughs) I’d mess around with some books that my mom gave me, Left Behind. Growing up I was really Christian, those books scared the shit out of me. As I got older especially when I was older, especially in college, I was reading James Baldwin. I had to be very careful when I read him. I realized after reading one or two of his books, I was really mad. I was viscerally upset for days if not weeks afterwards. I had to reserve that for only when I needed that type of anger, because I’m not a naturally angry person.

Honestly, I really hit my stride in 2017 when I was taking writing more seriously. I’d read the book On Writing by Stephen King, and he said, “The best way to become a better writer is by writing more and reading more.” So I said, “You know what? I’m about to consume as much art as possible.” I started  going to tons of readings, I started watching any movie or documentary I could get my hands on. I was going to plays. But the books that had the most profound influence on me as it relates to Black Buck was Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. I read that and I was like, “Wow, could I write a book that’s half as crazy as this?” That book made me feel as if I had the permission to not hold back. Now, I’m not Paul Beatty. I don’t like to compare myself to other writers, I’m just starting out. This guy’s been in the game, he won the Man Booker. His book was just so incredible. I couldn’t write like that, but I said, “I could put my own spin, my own flavor, and make it crazy while still not losing the essence of the book.” Paul Beatty, John A. Williams. Definitely someone like Toni Morrison. Nafissa Thompson-Spires. I loved Heads of the Colored People. I loved that book, I can’t praise it enough.

The book is designed as a how-to sales memoir, with Darren imparting his wisdom. Can you talk about how you constructed the novel?

When I wrote this book, I’m not going to lie, I was writing it for myself, first and foremost. I needed to impress myself, I needed to feel like I was saying something that would be interesting to me. I was looking to hold my attention throughout the duration of writing the book and then I was also putting myself in the place of the reader. “Would I want to read this whole thing? What would make it interesting?” When I was constructing it, honestly I was thinking about mob movies. I was thinking about “Good Fellas,” I was thinking about “The Godfather.” I was thinking these Italian guys, there was always a next level that they were reaching for. There was always a new challenge, right? They’d go rob some people, and then they’d say, “Why don’t we rob an airline?” So I said, “I want to structure the book that way in terms of its narrative climaxes, where there are multiple climaxes and it gets crazier and crazier in order to make it interesting and also to hold a reader’s attention.”

As for the structure, I did want to help people. So I said, “This book could double as a sales manual.” I really believe that if someone is open to it, they can read this book and be able to sit down for an entry level sales job, like cold calling, and be able to get the job. I really believe that. It’s not that simple one-to-one, but there are enough gems that if someone is really paying attention they can gain a basic level of sales proficiency.

Part of me was thinking about the Black and brown people I worked with. I was twenty-four, I was managing thirty people, it was a crazy time. I hired a good amount of Black and brown people, but I wasn’t the mentor to them that I should have been. When you’re working in a place like tech—or any white majority industry where, for the most part, it’s a lot of testosterone, it’s all about numbers, it’s focused on money, it’s focused on winning—there are things you don’t really talk about: religion, politics, and race. I think sometimes people want you to leave who you are at the door, and only bring in parts of yourself that will help you on the job, and if they don’t, then just assimilate. When I was working at this company, I was looking at the people I was managing as trying to basically manage them all the same way, to a certain extent. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been like, “Man, I wish I had done more to help the Black and brown people I hired to navigate the workplace itself—not just the job, but the environment.” This book was by no means an attempt at redemption, it was more so something I think that could be helpful in a way that I wish I had been helpful in the past.

Darren is such a fascinating character. He’s so charismatic and smart, but you also give him a lot of flaws. Can you talk about how you went about creating Darren?

Darren is charismatic and smart, but to a certain extent those two traits lead to him becoming blind, and at one point to his downfall. Darren is smart, but he still gets got, as we’d say. He’s still duped, in a certain regard. He’s smart, but he also has no proficiency in terms of the world he enters. I don’t know who said it, I think they attribute it to Einstein, but if you judge a fish on its ability to climb it will always think it’s stupid. Darren has no intelligence when it comes to that workplace. But going back to how I constructed Darren himself, I wanted him to feel real. I wanted him to be a real person, and that started with him having this accolade of being valedictorian at one of the top high schools in the country, but then working at Starbucks. A lot of people who have read the book are like, “Why did you do that? Why is he even still living with his mom?” You would automatically think that someone who’s a valedictorian, especially if he’s Black or brown, they’re going to be put on a pedestal and given all these opportunities. Why would he still be in this position? Well, he’s unambitious, and that for a lot of people is also weird. You’d assume that this guy who was valedictorian would want to go work at Goldman or NASA. But like a lot of people, sometimes you’re in your early twenties or mid-thirties or throughout your whole life, and you just feel comfortable where you’re at. There’s no reason to strive for more if you’re comfortable. For different people, being comfortable means different things. For some people, it means being able to take a private jet. For other people like Darren, it means being able to go home and just have a homecooked meal by his mom.

I wanted Darren to feel very real. I wanted him to have traits that would make him captivating enough for people to want to follow him. He is, in the beginning, kind in his own way. He has some dark humor—especially with someone like Brian—but he’s kind. He takes Brian under his wing, he calms him down. He genuinely loves Soraya. He has a lot of male love for Jason, which was important for me to show. We’re entering an age where it’s more okay for dudes, especially heteronormative masculine dudes, to love each other, but there needs to be a lot more of that. I wanted to showcase all the different aspects of Darren so when he begins to change, you do cringe.  You are wondering, “I thought this guy was cool! I thought that he was smart!”

One of the really enjoyable aspects of the book is that the plot takes a lot of unexpected twists that caught me totally unaware. Did you have these turns planned when you began writing the novel or were those discoveries you made along the way?

I had the main one that set from the beginning. Or let me say, the first few times that I was working on the book. For me, the way that I find I write best is not having it all laid out in the beginning. The way that I write is basically I’m driving the car, the headlights are on, but I’m seeing more of the road as I go. I might know what I’m going to write the next day or two days from now, but I’m not going to have it all laid out. A lot of these twists were spontaneous. I think that’s why hopefully they feel fresh and interesting to people, because they weren’t prescribed. I wasn’t setting it all up in the beginning, they were revealed to me as what would be most interesting. It’s not like I used every twist I came up with. I had to filter and think through them.

You balance a bunch of tones throughout the book, where it seamlessly goes from satire to corporate thriller to family drama.

The tone is really a direct reflection of myself. I’m someone who can be very serious. I’m someone who understands, to the best of my ability, the reality of the country that we live in, at least from my perspective. I know that my perspective isn’t the end all be all. But at the end of the day, I’m not a naturally angry person. I’ve found that anger cuts both ways and it’s very self-destructive. Do I get really angry at things that are going on? I definitely do, but I try to process and then make it useful. For me, while I can be serious and be sincere, there’s also a very strong humorous side to me. It might be a defense mechanism to be honest. I’m psychoanalyzing myself more as I’m thinking about the book, but I think that humor for me is something I fall back on often. It feels natural. Due to my growing up, hanging out with a bunch of white people where I was the only Black kid, humor was a survival mechanism. When I was writing the book, I didn’t want it to be four hundred pages of doom and gloom, especially today. In theory, most people know—and I say “in theory” because not everyone has internalized it—that racism is bad. I don’t need to write for four hundred pages about racism being bad, because there are so many other people who have done that way better than me. What I can do, and what I think was my asset, is to wrap these sincere and earnest messages into a burrito or hamburger bun of humor. (laughs) So that on one page, you’re holding your stomach [laughing] and then two pages later you’re so mad. I definitely wanted there to be that back and forth, that balancing act, to make it interesting, and also so it didn’t feel like I was preaching at people 24/7 so that people would be able relate. When I say “people,” do I want a bunch of diverse people to read this book, find it interesting, and take away some gems? Yeah. But it’s like what I wrote in the beginning, the book, first and foremost is for Black people, especially Black people who have experienced being “the only one.” They also don’t need four hundred pages of doom and gloom, because they’ve lived it.

Finally, what role has the library played in your life?

For me, growing up, the library was a safe space. We had a library literally two minutes away from my middle school. My friends and I would go to the library and hang around, maybe look at Mad Magazine, play RuneScape on the computers. That for me was really cool, but subconsciously, libraries served as my introduction that literature and the written word was valued. You build these buildings to house books! Libraries aren’t just books, they’re incredible programming for younger people and adults. But for me, at least subconsciously, because I don’t know if I was thinking this advanced when I was a kid, it was the first time I was like, “People care about books, books are to be respected, and the written word matters.” That for me has been instrumental as a reader and a writer.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.