Mateo Askaripour Speaks On Breaking into the Literary World with Black Buck
Jan 04 ● BY Chris Kubik
As someone who also grew up in the NYC area and transitioned into the literary community from another industry, I immediately connected to Mateo Askaripour’s debut as a novelist. In our conversation, we talked about some of the constructs we place around the idea of being a good “literary citizen” or a “starving artist” and questioned how much of that is rooted in whiteness.
Atop numerous lists of Most Anticipated Releases in 2021, Black Buck debuts January 5th with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Be sure to check out our review here, as well.
Chris Kubik: I think we’ll just kind of start with some questions that relate more to you and your writing journey so we’ll get a little bit of insight of how you come to this world of writing and the literary community. Has writing always been a part of your life? When did you make the decision to write seriously?
Mateo Askaripour: I’m not gonna front and say that I wanted to be a novelist when I was a kid. It’s so wild, like with a lot of these interviews, especially with literary people, they’ll be like, “What was the main book that you read that changed your life?” When I was a kid I was reading Clifford. Frog and Toad. But I was never like, “Oh my god, one day I’m going to be a novelist!”
Writing was just in the background. It was just something I did, something I liked to do creatively, but I wasn’t thinking of it so much as like, being a novelist. When I got into the tech world, I said, “bet, I’m going to start a company one day, I’m going to make this company very impactful, and then when I’m fifty or sixty, I’m just going to write a book about how I did it.” And we’ve seen those books! This book, Black Buck, is somewhat of a play on that.
Toward the end of my time working at this startup, man, my eyes were just opening up to so much. I was twenty-four, I was making six figures, I was managing thirty people. I had to do some things that conflicted with my inner compass, and then I lost my inner compass, and I had to find it again.
A lot of what you see in the book is a direct correlation with my life. Every feeling in the book correlates with something that I felt. I couldn’t have my characters feel things in such a visceral way if I didn’t feel them: Darren, pushing his closest homies and family aside—I did that. As my eyes were beginning to open, with the help of books, with the help of taking a step back from the world that I was so steeped in, I turned to writing.
Writing fiction was a specific type of salvation for me. It was when I began writing in earnest and began writing seriously that a whole world opened up to me and gave me something that I didn’t know I needed at the time.
Kubik: That’s really interesting to hear and I had kind of pieced together some of this with another interview with another sales manager, I’m probably not getting his position right—
Askaripour: Jake Dunlap?
Kubik: Yeah, exactly.
Askaripour: Oh, I worked with Jake! When I was starting to write seriously, I still had my hand in the world of startups with him and his company. I wasn’t working fulltime but it allowed me to avoid being a starving artist, which we know is a fucking scam. So many of us are fed this ideal that if you’re not fucking struggling, you’re not making something real. And I think that’s bullshit and I think it has racist undertones as well. But I digress! My bad!
Kubik: No, that’s an important point! Can you describe that feeling of going from a place where money is being openly talked about to the opposite, with writing, where it’s like, oh you should be glad you’re getting paid because you’re doing what you love?
Askaripour: After securing an internship with a tech startup, my parents were like, “You’re making a big mistake.” Because I had no money. They couldn’t afford this lifestyle of like, me staying in the city, and I remember living in Bed-Stuy, down the street from where this book takes place, and I wrote on the back of a receipt, “You have $100 left in your bank account, remember this time.” It was important for me to have those experiences because then I was thrown into a world with immense amounts of money.
When I finally started working there, they were like, “Yeah, we’re going to give you $40,000.” And I was like…bet, it’s better than zero. But I was keyed in to like, I don’t need to make a lot, just enough to survive in the city. And that’s sometimes what these industries force on you, like, “You should feel lucky to just get this.”
Then, I had some savings and I traveled and I was focusing on being a writer and when I came back to the States, it was like, this is a do-or-die mentality. I started to consult with tech startups because that would give me the freedom to not have to worry about money.
When I was thrown into the world of literature, and I started meeting people, it was strange, right, because a lot of people are grinding and hustling day to day, but I was hustling and grinding to just get on and not to make rent. But then came the thought of like, I’m doing a disservice if I’m not talking about the importance of making bread as an artist, especially as an artist of color. This is the fucking game—they don’t want us to talk about how much we’re getting paid for advances.
That’s why #PublishingPaidMe blew up, right. They don’t want us to talk about how much things cost. They don’t want us to talk about these types of things because then it’ll throw this industry into further examination and not everyone’s going to like what they see. On the flip side, I think it’s important for people to see people of color making money off of work to know it’s possible and that they can ask for more than a $20-30,000 advance for their work. That’s why I talk about it often. I don’t talk about it in a braggadocio way—it’s more like, this is the world I came from, which was excessive, and these are things and skills and a mindset that I believe can serve other people in the literary industry. Because there’s too much esotericism.
Kubik: You can tell you’ve had energy and ambition to make sure you make this transition. That’s put into contrast against other writers who—let’s just say it—are upper class, white, they mess around, do this or that for a little bit, go to a grad program. That’s not an opportunity afforded a lot of people who want to be known as writers.
Askaripour: When I came into this industry, I was focusing too much on the who’s who. Who are these people in social media, who are the people in these magazines. That was the wrong focus. I was trying to be buddy buddy with everyone. This was some of my sales training, right. I almost never asked a stranger for help who didn’t help me, in some way, in the world of startups. But when I was coming into the world of writing, I didn’t get that. And I’m not going to say I was entitled to that. By no means. But I’d reach out for help and people would just ignore me.
I found Viet Thanh Nguyen’s email. I found his email address and was like, “I loved The Sympathizer, can we talk?” And he got back to me! Him getting back to me was a huge booster. Because it made me feel validated, right. But he got back and said, “Listen man, I don’t have time for my family. I can’t talk. But the road to publishing is a hard and long one for all of us.” And hearing that from him meant the world to me at the time.
I can’t forget the feeling I had when I came in and I wanted a mentor. Just like I had a mentor in startups, I wanted a mentor so bad in the world of writing. Not someone who was going to hold my hand, but someone who was going to break down all this esoteric bullshit. Because it’s not just white people that play into this—I, felt like, as a Black dude, I had to play into what was going on online and like trying to get buddy buddy with people and speak like how they speak and read what they read, to the point where, eventually, it all fell down. That façade fell down. I was like, first of all, I need to focus on reading writers of color.
Kubik: Now that you have this big picture look of the literary community and publishing, what would you say to other writers of colors and your earlier self?
Askaripour: You must only focus on the art that truly resonates with you. That’s it. If people are buzzing a book or buzzing a movie, check it out. But if you consume that piece of art and you think, “This shit was wack,” don’t feel bad! Follow your own heart. Follow feedback that truly resonates with you. If something does resonate with you, put it in your art.
One of my boys, Julio, he’s an actor, he once told me, “There’s no one narrative for success.” I build upon that by saying there’s no one definition of success. Maybe before you begin your journey as an artist, or if you’re already on it, take a step back and ask yourself, “What does success look like for me?” That may change, but that’ll be your North Star in the beginning.
One other thing I’ll say is that whether you’re writing a book, or making a film, or making any other piece of art, do not judge yourself. It’s when people hesitate and seed doubt that they never even finish. That’s what I’d say to me.
An MFA may work for some people. But I was very conscious to not get into an MFA because I thought it would ruin my voice. That’s why I didn’t get into an MFA even though I had people who were like, ‘it’s been two years, when is this going to work out?’ The last thing I’ll say is, I have a writing homie, and he says, “From going through my MFA, I’m afraid to write. But if I do write, it’s clean.” The converse is me. I had an editor once tell me, “Mateo, the best thing about you not having an MFA is that you’re not afraid to write. The worst thing is that you’re not disciplined on the page.” I’d rather have the latter.
Kubik: Something that ends up coming through more in the second half of the novel is an appeal to today’s politics and issues confronting people today, especially with Trump’s presidency. Was that something you thought about while writing?
Askaripour: I wasn’t writing for this time. I wasn’t writing for this moment. I wrote this book in 2018. I was writing for a sequence of moments that this moment is connected to, which, I think is to say I was ready for history: history that I know about this country and history that I know about this world, history that I’ve experienced.
For many of us in the workplace, when we’re the resident Other, or we’re representative of a few, whether that’s Black, Latinx, Middle Eastern, Asian, Indigenous, also related to sexual orientation and religion—racism sometimes happens in such a minute way where in your heart you’re like UNH! (Clutches chest.) Someone can say something that seems so innocuous, but to you, it feels like the Grand Canyon is opening up before you. And if you speak up about it, you get gaslit. Stop being so sensitive! It was just a joke! So this book encompasses the history and the histories of what so many of us have experienced in this nation and in many other nations and in the workplace. That’s what I was looking to capture.
A lot of the books that I read are old. They’re from the fifties or the sixties. They’re by Ann Petry, John A. Williams, Iceberg Slim. They were writing about the same things that are happening today. When I think about that, I’m like, fuck. We’ve come a long way in other ways—it might be easier for me to get a loan—but, still, we’re feeling the same things as we were sixty, seventy, hundreds of years ago.
Correction: In an earlier version of this interview, we included misleading information about Askaripour’s upbringing and its relation to his first startup job. We have edited that passage for clarity. Our apologies to the author.