by Mateo Askaripour
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
An exclusive Authorlink interview by Diane Slocum
Darren Vender was the valedictorian of his high school class, but he is satisfied with his life living with his mother in Bed-Stuy, hanging out with his girlfriend Soraya, and managing a Starbucks in a high-rise office building – until one day when he convinces Rhett, the CEO of a high performing tech startup in the top floors of the building, to try a new coffee. Rhett is sure Darren has what it takes to make it as a salesman in his company. Others in Sumwun are less enthusiastic to welcome the first Black to their force, and challenge “Buck,” as he is now known, forcing him to go to extremes to excel with tragic consequences.
AUTHORLINK: What was your first thought that developed into your novel? Was there a character, a line, a scene that popped into your head? Did that first image make it into the final draft?
“Black Buck was born from the seed of an idea…”
ASKARIPOUR: Black Buck was born from the seed of an idea: to write a novel about an elite group of Black salespeople who would become domestic terrorists, blow up a bunch of shit, and scare the hell out of white America. But by the time I sat down to write the book, a couple months later, the idea had become more refined, though I only had a few elements of it worked out.
That exact scene, of a Fight Club-esque ending with people watching a corporate high-rise crumble before their eyes, didn’t make the book, but a group of young Black and brown people burning down parts of what corporate America stands for certainly did.
AUTHORLINK: How did you develop your story? How much did you plan and how much did it just grow as you went along? Did you know how Darren/Buck would evolve?
“I had to ask myself what the story I planned to write actually was. “
ASKARIPOUR: After I decided to not have my Black and brown characters become terrorists––even though, funnily enough, some people cast them as such by the end of the book––I had to ask myself what the story I planned to write actually was. I knew it would be about an unintentional underdog, someone who was supposed to make it, in the eyes of what it means to succeed in America but didn’t.
The book was primarily going to be split between Manhattan (where the startup’s office was), and Brooklyn (where Darren’s family and friends were). I had an idea of a couple characters, a potential structure, and I was aware of the big twist I wanted to pull off, as well as that Darren would become an entry-level salesperson, but, beyond that, I didn’t know much else other than that I wanted to write something that felt true to me, the people I wanted to serve, and the reality of the nation we live in.
This meant trusting myself, as well as the characters. I believed that if I allowed the characters to show me who they were, they would, helping inform the plot. Working from this place, I was constantly jotting down notes as I went along, learning more each day, and bringing my ideas to life on the page, knowing that I would revise later. I’d already plotted the hell out of a book before, and it castrated it, so I wasn’t going to do that again.
As for Darren’s development into Buck, and who he becomes after, I had somewhat of an idea. But I needed him to help me better understand his own journey.
AUTHORLINK: Your book is also Buck’s book, where he includes tidbits of information on how to sell. Why did you use this technique and how did you learn sales? How much did you and Buck have in common?
ASKARIPOUR: I wanted to write something that could help people beyond providing them with a fun, engaging, and potentially illuminating narrative. This made me work to write a novel that could also double as a sales manual, because I believed that if I did my job right, and if readers paid close attention, they would walk away with a handful of practical gems, as well as encouragement and inspiration, that they could then use to advance themselves and the lives of those they love. But Buck breaking the fourth wall to dispense these bits of information didn’t happen until the fourth draft of the book, when I decided to be even more blatant about my intentions.
In terms of my own history, I learned the art of sales when I was 22. I had begun interning at a startup at 21, then became a community and social media manager at that same company, and a few months later, the CEO said we needed to start a sales team, and he asked me to start it with him. It was an intense time, to say the least. There were about 20 people in the company, and I was the only one on the phone, in the middle of the office, so everyone could hear me. I had marbles in my mouth and prayed that no one would actually pick up on the other end of the phone. I knew that it was sink-or-swim, and, with the help of the CEO, one of the cofounders, and other folks, I learned to swim in the chaotic waters of startup sales, eventually teaching others and rising up quickly, like Buck.
I’d like to say that it goes without saying that Buck and I aren’t one in the same, but, shit, I’ve had enough people refer to me as “Darren” that I know it still needs to be said. We differ in many ways––where we grew up, how we were raised, our paths into the world of sales and startups, and certain modes of thinking––but we also share the similarities of being ambitious, having lost ourselves in the pursuit of success, and, among other things, we both have the desire to uplift others through giving them the tools to succeed that we’ve gained along the way.
AUTHORLINK: Why do you think Black Buck sold and your earlier attempts didn’t? What did it have that they lacked? Or what changed?
“I didn’t really know what I was doing with those earlier attempts…”
ASKARIPOUR: I didn’t really know what I was doing with those earlier attempts––in a way, they were my MFA. With the first manuscript, it had a ton of energy, but lacked clarity in its aims. The second was a lot tighter, but had a fraction of the energy that the first did. With Black Buck, I’d become a better writer, consumed a lot more art, which improved my creative sensibilities, gained clarity on my purpose as a writer, as well as whom I was writing for, and, most important, I felt free.
I no longer wanted to pander to an industry that seemed to get off on being exclusionary and unnecessarily esoteric, so I said that while I did want an agent and a book deal, these were no longer priorities one and two––writing something authentic that impressed me, before anyone else, while also hopefully helping others down the line, was the goal.
AUTHORLINK: What do you hope people might take away with them after reading the novel in addition to just enjoying a good story?
ASKARIPOUR: It depends on who’s reading it. For those who have ever been the only one, or one of the few, in an environment––whether it be the workplace, an institution of higher learning, sports team, religious organization, or a variety of other places––I want them to know that they are not being paranoid, crazy, or overly-sensitive when they perceive something to be amiss. I also want them to feel empowered by the knowledge that they have the same right to chase their dreams just as anyone else. This is especially true for my Black readers, but not limited to them.
As for everyone else, especially white readers, I hope they perform unflinching and courageous self-examination while, and after, reading to see what role they play in the narrative of Black Buck, as well as the greater narrative of the fight for progress. And while I didn’t write this to be a tour guide through the world of Blackness, I can’t help but smile when I get an email from someone saying that the book has given them the tools to be a better, and genuine, ally––instead of performing the role of one.
AUTHORLINK: What projects are you working on? What about Defy Ventures?
ASKARIPOUR: I’m working on a second novel, and once we finalize where Black Buck will live in Hollywood, I’ll be playing a role there. Aside from that, I’m speaking with companies, universities, schools, book clubs, and still doing interviews and other promo for the book. But I’m equally focused on staying healthy, happy, balanced, and spending quality time with my wonderful readers.
And yes, Defy Ventures––I’m still helping them produce interviews with the previously incarcerated individuals they serve. Their mission is in line with the type of impact I seek to make, so I look forward to partnering with them on whatever projects make the most sense.
About the Author: Mateo Askaripour has been published in outlets such as Lit Hub, The Rumpus and Catapult. He was a 2018 Rhode Island Writers’ Colony writer-in-residence. He enjoys music videos, movie trailers, yerba mate, dancing and the music and scents of vendors’ cooking food on the streets of Brooklyn where he lives.