One of the perks of working in the book biz is being invited to author breakfasts and lunches and getting the opportunity to meet and hear from an author before their book publishes. In spite of Covid, publishers are continuing to hold these early celebrations, albeit virtually, and I was lucky enough to attend one in August where Mateo Askaripour downright dazzled. His debut novel, Black Buck, is about a “Black dude” who hatches a plan to help Black people get into tech and in so doing tries to redefine what it means to be a minority in the workplace.
His editor called the book as “fun and wild,” and as soon as Askaripour described one of his characters as a “free corner philosopher, talkin’ trash and choppin’ it up”…well, I was sold.
This is one of the buzziest novels of the new year, and I, for one, couldn't put it down. The Amazon Editors named it one of the Best Books of the Month for January, and I was lucky enough to chat with Askaripour about his novel. Here's our conversation:
Al Woodworth, Amazon Book Review: Can you describe your book?
Mateo Askaripour: Black Buck is about a twenty-two-year-old, Darren Vender, who lives in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, with his mom. He has his girlfriend, best friend, and folks in the neighborhood, and they have him. He works as a shift supervisor at a Starbucks in Manhattan, and one day a start-up CEO, Rhett Daniels, comes in and asks for his regular drink. Darren, for some reason, says, “No,” and sells Rhett on a different drink.
Rhett, impressed, invites Darren to the thirty-sixth floor, where his company, Sumwun, is located. At first Darren refuses, but eventually goes up and, after seeing how wild, cult-like, and mysterious Sumwun is, decides to join their sales team to prove to himself and his mother that he can fulfill the potential that so many people say he has.
But once there, he realizes he’s the only Black person in the entire company, and goes through hell—mundane and overt racism, self-doubt, and more—to reach the top, which he does. However, he discovers he doesn’t like being the token Black dude, so, with the help of others, he hatches a plan to help other Black and brown people infiltrate America’s start-up sales teams, redefining what it means to be a minority in the workplace.
It’s important to note that, while the book doesn’t shy away from the more tragic aspects of systemic racism, it isn’t 400 pages of doom and gloom. Darren’s humor, which can, at times, be dark, is present on almost every page, showing that laughter is one of the most powerful forms of resistance we possess.
I have to tell you, I couldn’t put your book down. It just flew by. What was the writing process like? Did you write in a fever dream, like the way I read it?
Thanks, Al! Hearing that folks can’t put it down, even if certain parts are difficult to get through, makes me feel like I achieved at least one of my aims: to write a book so engaging that readers would stick with Darren no matter how much their perception of him might change throughout the story.
And, yeah, parts of it definitely were written in a fever dream. I didn’t hesitate when I came to the page, which is one reason why the first draft was a whopping 168,000 (!) words—I held nothing back and had a blast while writing it, even though there were some parts that hit close to home and choked me up.
When I began Black Buck, I felt like I was finally free to write the book I wanted, how I wanted, and for the people I wanted to serve. Prior to this, I’d written two novels that hadn’t earned me an agent or a book deal, but it was when I reached a creative low that I found the freedom that allowed me to write this book, and once I had that, there was no turning back.
It’s so funny and offers so many side-eyed looks at start-up culture. What inspired you to create a company like Sumwun and focus on sales?
Ha, I’m glad you asked. I don’t really talk about this often, but Sumwun was a company I’d actually considered starting on my own. When I was still working at a tech start-up—managing 30 people who were responsible for cold calling and making calls to prospects who showed some interest in our product—I thought that my next step was to start a company that was going to have an enormous, positive impact on the world.
Years before, I’d had the idea for Sumwun—same name and everything. It would be a company that connected individuals with people around the world who subscribed to different faiths and spiritual followings, in the hopes that the connection might offer some emotional, mental, or spiritual guidance. But after I left the start-up world, or at least when I stopped working with them full-time, the last thing I wanted to do was start my own, so I focused on my nonexistent career as a writer.
Sales and startups weren’t the first themes I turned to when I began writing fiction. Race always played a role, but even back then I was still figuring out what I was trying to say about it—and interrogating what being a Black man in America, with both Jamaican and Iranian heritage, even meant to me.
Before writing Black Buck, I was asking myself a ton of questions: What does it mean to be a writer? How can I do my best work? What rings truest for me? What do I want to achieve with my work? How much should I care about other people in the literary industry—authors, agents, editors, critics?
Answering these questions with unflinching honesty was what gave me the courage to write about sales and start-ups, which inherently have equal amounts of humor and horror within them. Not only that, but I also knew I’d have a lot of material to work with because I lived and breathed those worlds for years.
Throughout the book there are actual sales lessons for readers to take away—especially readers of color. Why did you include these salesman lessons and strategies in your novel?
I wanted this book to be both an engaging story and a sales manual. I truly believe that if someone knows how to sell, they can better their life and the lives of those they love.
Sales isn’t about selling a product, it’s about being in control of your own destiny, and not letting anything or anyone stop you from chasing success, however you define it. For some, success means making six figures; for others it means finding the love of your life and having a healthy family that never goes hungry. The tips in the book, while by no means being all-encompassing, can help people get ahead, as can the narrative itself.
These are just words, though. You, the reader, are the judge of what this book is and isn’t for you. But when you figure it out, let me know! I’m curious as hell.
What do you think the role of fiction is in our society?
It’s whatever you want it to be. A lot of people like to describe fiction as an escape from reality, but I’ve read, and agree, that fiction can also function as a simulation of reality, so that anyone who reads might experience what it’s like to be someone else without having to actually be them. That is both incredible and dangerous.
Incredible because, for a few hundred pages, you have the opportunity to live a life, or multiple lives, that may be completely unlike your own. And I say it can also be dangerous because having received a glimpse of a life so different from your own may make it feel like you truly understand what it’s like to be someone else—and you might make assumptions from that, when you have only scraped the surface.
People like to say you should walk a mile in someone else’s shoes before judging them, but what’s a mile to a marathon, and what’s a marathon to an odyssey?
Are there ways in which you relate to your characters? Are you “Buck”?
This is the first time someone has straight up asked me if I’m Buck, and I respect the hell out of you for it, ha.
There’s a piece of me in every character—I can’t think of one thing a character has felt that I haven’t felt myself: love, ambition, betrayal, arrogance, hope, pain, stupidity, remorse. But, to answer your question directly: Buck and I are similar in some ways—we both had our potential activated by someone else, and we allowed it to change who we were in positive and negative ways—but we’re also very different. We don’t always think the same way, speak the same way, and we’ve had different experiences, both personally and professionally. All of that was intentional.
I was very careful to remember that I wasn’t writing about myself, that I couldn’t if I were to write the book in the way it needed to be written, which is about something much bigger than me and my own experiences, but that also contains them.
What are some books that you’ve read recently and enjoyed?
I loved Jerald Walker’s How to Make a Slave and Other Essays. While I was reading it, it felt like I was talking to another version of myself, someone who understands the paranoia, anxiety, and absurdity many Black people experience daily, especially in majority-white environments, and can also find the humor in it. The same goes for The Spook Who Sat by the Door, which is probably the book that Black Buck is closest in conversation with, and I only read it a couple of months ago.
Aside from those two, one of my favorite books this year was How Much of These Hills is Gold. Whew. For a second, C Pam Zhang, its author, made me think tigers roamed the 19th-century frontier of Western United States. The writing, at the line-level, is as tight and no-nonsense as the characters themselves, and the story is one with so much commentary on what it means to an “other,” weaved in seamlessly.
If I may look toward 2021, some of the books I’m most excited about are: The Prophets, Yes, Daddy, The Other Black Girl, Of Women and Salt, Harlem Shuffle, Caul Baby, How Beautiful We Were, The Committed, Filthy Animals, and many more.
What is next for you?
Another novel, a bunch of essays (if I can place them!), some Hollywood stuff, and who knows what else. Hopefully it includes nature, connecting with readers of Black Buck, being able to help other people break into the literary industry, and more opportunities to turn my ideas into reality.
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us and for writing this book. There’s so much depth to it—about the state of our country, start-ups, and racism—yet it’s bubblewrapped in the hilarity and insanity of every day. Thanks for writing it and, even more so, for taking the opportunity to proactively make the world a better place.
This was a blast! Thank you for your time, questions, and giving me the space to connect with people beyond the pages of the book. As they say in every corny love movie, “This isn’t goodbye, this is see you later.”
We chat with the author of one of the most buzzed-about books of January.