“Your Stories not Only Matter, They’re Necessary”: Mateo Askaripour on Writing
An alumnus from New York University, Mateo Askaripour is a novelist and essayist. He was a visiting student at NYUAD and served as a resident advisor at the Sama Tower campus. His recently published debut, Black Buck—a part satire, part memoir, part guidebook about navigating racism in the tech startup world of New York—has appeared in the New York Times bestseller list. He spoke with us soon after the publication of Black Buck.
Nur’aishah Shafiq: Black Buck isn’t the first novel that you’ve completed. How does it feel to have your debut novel not be the first book you ever finished?
Mateo Askaripour: I’m thankful for it. If the first manuscript that I’d completed (and agents were reading it) had gone on to be published, it would’ve been detrimental to my growth as a person and as a writer.
Where I was at that point of my life, I was extremely confident, coming from the world of start-ups and sales. I thought, absurdly, that I could just transition quite easily into the world of literature. I said yes! look, look, I’m going to be an author now. And when it didn’t happen, I had to face the reality that who I [was] as an individual wasn’t going to cut it.
So I wrote the second book, but my aim was off at the time. It was to get an agent. And when that didn’t work out, again, I was necessarily humbled. And those two “failures,” those instances of me not achieving my aims forced me to focus on my craft, forced me to ask myself, “Who do I want to be as a writer? Who do I want to serve? And how do I want to write?” It was through those series of failures and dozens of rejections that I reached the point that I said, “I’m going to write the book that I want for the people I want in the way that I want.”
I’m so happy that those two books didn’t go anywhere. Because I can’t imagine a world where they were published and then I tried to write something like Black Buck, which feels truer than the first two books. It would have been far more difficult to do that.
NS: What was your process while writing Black Buck?
MA: I wrote this book at my parents’ house. I told myself I wasn’t allowed to leave [the United States] until I got an agent, whether that took me five months or five years. I had to be committed to the task now. I spent a lot of time in nature to figure out who I was as a writer and what I was writing about.
In terms of my routine, It involved looking at a folder of some of my biggest inspirations every time before I’d write. I’d stare into their eyes, and I would thank them for their own art, and for the ways that they lived their lives. And tell them that I hope I can do them justice through my own art and through the way that I live as well. I’d watch two to three hours’ worth of music videos and movie trailers, making it so that I can come to the page with a lot of energy and confidence and excitement. Because there’s no coach saying, “Write, write, write.” And then by the time I get to the page, I’m feeling so good and so free, and [in] such a place that is free of judgment that I’m just gonna write. And I’m having fun. And that’s honestly how it works, most of the time. It’s very important for you to embrace who you are as a writer, rather than trying to emulate someone else.
But I believe very simply that a writer writes. A writer writes. So even though I didn’t have a book deal or an agent, I was a writer.
NS: The story takes inspiration from your own experiences within the tech start-up world. Can you speak to the process of writing a fictional story inspired by your own life?
MA: I had to be careful, because I knew that if I just wrote about my own life, it would have been hard for me to gain a necessary distance to reach readers in the way that I wanted to. Because this book is not about me. This book is not about my life but it contains many aspects of my life. It was important for me to put the parts of me that would be most resonant with other people and are definitely most authentic, while writing a story about someone else that other people could see themselves in.
NS: You were a writers in residence at the Rhode Island’s Writers Colony. What role did the colony play in your writing?
MA: I actually revised a large part of my second draft while there. The Rhode Island Writers Colony afforded me a literary family that I didn’t know I needed. And that community made the road to this point so much easier than it could have been. Far less lonelier.
I gave my first reading in Providence, Rhode Island. And a man came up to me afterwards [and] said, “Hey, where can I buy your book?”
I said, “Buy my book? This is my second draft.” He said, “Yeah, can I go buy it, at like Barnes and Noble or an indie around the corner?”
I said, “Sir, I don’t have an agent. I don’t have a book deal. I’m working on my second draft.”
He said, “Well, I have no doubt that this is going to be published.”
This man thinking that my words were worthy of being purchased and read and consumed and shared, it did a number on me. And I [still] hold that today.
NS: In the novel, Darren is also the author of the book. With this second author in mind, can you tell me about your views on authorship?
MA: I wanted Darren to write the book or the book to be this meta fiction from the perspective of Darren, so that it would really hit home the point that this isn’t just an engaging narrative. But [that] it doubles as a memoir and sales manual. That was very important for me – for this novel to have that duality. So that readers would understand that there are real gems and real lessons in here that can help them, concretely and practically in their own lives, to advocate for themselves and those that they love. And to know that they, just as much as anyone else, have the right to chase success.
But in terms of authorship, I own my title as an author. I own my title as the author of Black Buck. I love being an author. But I’m also the type of person who called myself a writer when I began writing. I didn’t wait to call myself a writer like many people do. I understand that impostor syndrome is real. But I believe very simply that a writer writes. A writer writes. So even though I didn’t have a book deal or an agent, I was a writer.
Last night I went to a bookstore with a friend. I went to the cashier and I said, “Hey, my book recently came out, and you have it. Would you like me to autograph some copies?” Because these indie bookstores love when authors come in and autograph.
And this woman looked up at me in disbelief. So then she went upstairs and got the owner. The owner came down and was like, “Oh my God. Thank you for coming. Like, thank you for coming to sign books.” So I signed a bunch of books. They were grateful. But this incredulity of people not really believing that they are interacting with someone who wrote a book is fascinating. And that’s why I think it’s more important than ever, and not from an ego standpoint, but for us at different points of our journeys to say, “Yes, we are writers,” over and over and over again.
NS: This interaction at the bookstore reminds me of the essay you wrote about expanding the canon of Black literature. In it, you talk about how the work of Black authors lives or dies, and the dynamic between the industry and people who consume books. I don’t want to pit it as a binary between the market and the consumer, but now that you’re a published author yourself, how has your thinking evolved regarding the responsibility of heightening the visibility of black authors, with regards to the dynamic between the industry and the reader?
MA: So I look at myself. I am not someone who has opened the door for others. The door has already been opened by many other writers, Black and brown writers, and other writers of color. The door has been opened. But I, facing those who are looking to come through, am inviting them in. And I do feel that it’s my responsibility to help other Black and Brown writers through the door. Because this industry is rigged. I don’t say that with any cynicism. It’s a business. All creative industries, they can’t thrive if they’re betting on hundreds of people every year.
Publishers every year pick a handful of books to be their lead titles for every season. When I first had my conversation with an editor, she said, “This is going to be a lead title.” So I already knew that they were going to throw publicity behind it. But most writers don’t get that. And they don’t get it because publishers do not deem their books to be ones that could potentially have a lot of earning potential.
Knowing how the industry is built, it is 1,000% my responsibility to help other Black and Brown writers through the door. What I can do and what I’m doing now, is I can give them the information that I have. And tell them very straightforwardly how this industry works, how I navigated it, and how they may be able to as well. So that you can own the narrative and the presentation and the promotion, of how your book is introduced to other people.
More concretely, I am working with friends on their manuscripts. I don’t have all the time in the world. But I do have time for the people that I’ve already committed to [and] read their manuscripts. I can do it for people one at a time. And then hopefully this year I can figure out a way to do it on a mass scale, whatever that means, [even] like a seminar. Imagine if we were having this conversation, but there were 1,000 people in it. That’s what I wanna do.
I want at the end of my life, to say that I was personally responsible for 1,000 people getting a book deal. And Toni Morrison said it as well, that if you are free, you need to free someone else. If you are empowered, you need to empower someone else. And none of this matters if I can’t help other people win.
Knowing how the industry is built, it is 1,000% my responsibility to help other Black and Brown writers through the door. What I can do and what I’m doing now, is I can give them the information that I have.
NS: What’s the importance of engaging politically in fiction, and the importance of writing specifically as a mode of political action?
MA: It is at the core of absolutely everything I’ve written, and everything I will write. I have ideas that have even more gravity than Black Buck. I have ideas that will be a little bit more fun, [but] they have to always be rooted in the reality of our nation [the United States]. And the reality of our nation cannot be disassociated from politics. So my book is 100% political. I don’t know if I would go as far as saying that every piece of art is political. But I think that if you read a book and you don’t feel as though it has a direct connection to political or social justice issues, then you are still seeing something in the lack of those themes. Namely, privilege. But for me personally, every single thing I write has to have a message. If not, then it’s not worth writing.
NS: What would you like to say to developing writers of color?
MA: Well, first off, your stories not only matter, but they’re necessary. And they are likely far more interesting than what we’ve seen in the last couple of years, than what we’ve seen in the so-called canon. That’s one.
Two, you deserve to be here just as much as anyone else. You deserve to be here just as much as Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Hawthorne, Hemingway. In fact, in this day and age, you deserve to be here more than them. Because many of us are tired of them. I’m tired of them. And I wanna read what you have to write. I wanna read what you have to say. I wanna read about your world, [and] the fictional worlds that you create from your exact perspective.
Third, if you feel as though you need to pander to the industry, please do your best to not do that. Please do your best to push that inclination away from yourself and your writing.
It will not serve you. I tried it. It didn’t serve me. I was able to write this book because I finally came to the realization that I need to write something that was true. True to me, true to the people I wanted to serve, and true to the state of the world that we’re in.
Do not be afraid to write. And if you are afraid to write, push through it. Come to that blank page with as much energy as possible every day. And if it’s hard for you, think about the people that you want to read this book, and how impactful this book will be for them.
Nur’aishah Shafiq is a junior at NYU Abu Dhabi, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing. She is currently working on her first novel.