In Black Buck, the debut novel by Mateo Askaripour, Darren Vender is an unaspiring twenty-two-year-old Starbucks barista working at a Midtown office building, when a regular customer—who happens to be the CEO of Sumwun, a cult-like tech startup—offers him a job.
The only Black person at the company, Darren struggles with colleagues who wear their racism on their sleeve and others whose microaggressions inflict subtler indignities. After a hellish training period that tests his endurance, sanity, and loyalty to his humble Bed-Stuy roots, Darren reinvents himself as a cutthroat salesman named Buck, super successful at work but alienated from his friends, his family, and his identity. But when tragedy strikes at home, Darren decides to employ his sales skills to fuel his own mission: empowering other young people of color to chase success in a white world that doesn’t see them as worthy. Askaripour’s own experience as the director of sales development at a startup at age twenty-four informs the novel, which skewers the vertiginous world of tech startups while exploring intersections of ambition and race.
Askaripour’s voice has already been compared to that of Paul Beatty, author of lauded racial satire The Sellout, while Colson Whitehead has called Black Buck “a high wire act full of verve and dark, comic energy.” A 2018 Rhode Island Writers Colony writer-in-residence, Askaripour has written for Medium, Lit Hub, Electric Literature, Entrepreneur, The Rumpus, and Catapult. He lives in New York and can be found on Twitter at @AskMateo.
I recently had the chance to speak with Askaripour about his publishing journey, the book’s startup-company setting, and how his novel doubles as a sales manual for young people of color.
The Rumpus: You originally came to writing from the world of tech startups. How did you make your transition to the literary arena?
Mateo Askaripour: Basically, I started writing seriously in 2016. I was still working at a tech startup at the time, and to me, writing was an outlet. I still remember the date, May 21, 2016, when I began this first novel. It was just coming out of me, and I didn’t know what it was; I just knew it felt good. I knew that it was bringing me back to life and I wasn’t partying every day of the week—Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I would go home on a Friday and sleep in and on Saturday figure out how to write. I was just trying to imitate what it meant to be a writer. I’d write in coffeeshops, in libraries. I would try to get up early and write before work, and I’d write after.
I was just figuring it out as I went along, but I was lucky I had a bunch of confidence from my job working in sales at this tech startup. I was twenty-four, but I was managing thirty people, and even though I’d become disillusioned with that world, people there depended on me. So, I was coming into writing with that confidence. After almost four years of putting in fifty- to sixty-hour weeks, I quit my job in August 2016, finished my manuscript and bought a one-way ticket to Costa Rica. Once I left—you’re going to laugh because this is so ridiculous—I started pitching all these literary agencies my unedited manuscript. I was not only pitching them, I was also emailing the agency heads and calling them. You’re really not supposed to do that! Long story short, nothing happened with that book.
Rumpus: What changed?
Askaripour: So, in November 2018 I was pretty down and out. I was at creative rock bottom, thinking, what am I doing? Who did I think I was, that I could go from working in the tech industry to being a writer, especially of fiction? I had no standing in that world and apparently no idea how difficult it was. And that’s when I found Stephen King’s On Writing. There were two things that stood out for me: he said, one, the way I write all these books and am so prolific is I create all of these crazy scenarios and then try to figure out over a couple hundred pages how to get my characters out of them, if they do get out of them. And two, he said the best way to become a better writer is by writing more and reading more. It was around then that I really committed to the process. I said, I don’t care if this is going to take me five months or five years, there’s no turning back. Writing this novel is what I want to do. This is where I feel happiest and where I feel best. I’m going to do this.
Rumpus: It’s interesting to hear that it was the confidence that you had developed in the tech startup world that gave you the confidence to try your hand at writing in the first place.
Askaripour: Yeah, it was decimated, though, by the time I wrote this book! I came in super-confident, and then when it wasn’t working, that’s when I began to have extreme doubts. If my confidence was an eight out of ten when I started, it was a four out of ten, honestly, by the end of 2018. At that point, I sort of entered a stage which I actually found has been the most helpful for me, but it was not one that I came to consciously. It was sort of a “f— it” stage, where I was like, you know what, I have nothing to lose, I’m going to do what I want to do. I said, I’m going to write this book for myself and for people who I think it will help. Do I want to get an agent? Sure. Is that my main goal? No. I’m going to write this book in the voice that I want, I’m going to write it about what I want. I’m going to take risks and we’ll see what happens. And fortunately, it worked out.
Rumpus: After all that, how did you come up with the idea for what became Black Buck?
Askaripour: The idea started out as something a bit different than what it is now. I was watching a ton of documentaries, I was consuming a lot of different art, and I had this idea for there to be this radical terrorist group of elite Black salespeople; they would teach other Black people how to sell and then they would start blowing up buildings. Then I was like, wait, that’s a lot, maybe that’s not exactly it. I fleshed the idea out, and in January 2019 I began writing. I knew it would have to do with race, sales, and startups because those were some of the themes that were close to me in my life but that I was just avoiding writing about because they were so close to me. It was as if I couldn’t imagine there being some universality in it or that people would be interested in it.
In writing Darren, I tried not to make him too much like me. We have some similarities, but I was very conscious of making differences between us because if I was writing just about my life, I don’t think I would have gained the distance to make it as relevant or helpful to other people. I would have been way too deep in my own experiences.
Rumpus: Speaking of drawing from your own life, your author bio says that your work “aims to empower people of color to seize opportunities for advancement, no matter the obstacle,” which Darren/Buck also finds a way to do in the novel. Can you tell me more about this work and the way you accomplish it?
Askaripour: There are a few ways. I’m constantly interacting with a variety of people, including people of color, who are starting out in their career or are at certain points and want to make sense of what they are experiencing. I’ve been fortunate that as I talk about this book, there are a lot of people in the world of startups who hear about it and tell me about people who are having similar experiences, and I connect with some of them. For example, there was a young Black man who I’m in contact with now who had been sending out a lot of emails but was not getting responses—I think he includes a picture at the bottom—and he said, I don’t want to play the victim card, but I’m not getting as many responses as other people and I don’t know if it’s because I’m Black. And whether that’s true or not, just the fact that this guy was thinking that is something I’ve experienced. I’m not going to call it paranoia, but just that questioning, that curiosity. It’s things like that, where I’m trying to let people know, especially Black and brown people in the workplace, that they’re not alone and that they have the same right as anyone else to chase success. That’s the way I live my life, and that’s the way I am in interactions with as many people as possible. I also purposely wrote this book so it could double as a sales manual so that anyone who reads it, especially Black and brown people, would be able to walk away with a few gems they could use to advance themselves and the lives of the people they love.
Rumpus: For example, like a sales manual, each section is named after a step in the classic seven-step sales process (prospecting, preparation, approach, presentation, handling objections, closing, and follow-up). You also feature bite-sized sales advice and life lessons from Buck throughout. What lessons do you hope people take from reading your book this way?
Askaripour: I once read that the greatest thing about reading is that it’s like a simulation for life. You get to experience all these things and live all these other lives and you’re protected somewhat—not always emotionally, depending on how good the book is and how deep you get into it—but you’re protected from it touching your own life. That way, you can take what is useful from the book and then go out into the real world and put it to use. I’m hoping that people who read this book, especially people of color, will know I want them to be sitting shotgun next to Darren as he is experiencing all these highs and lows, and then be able to take the good from it, to learn from Darren’s mistakes and to overcome obstacles in their own lives, especially professionally.
Rumpus: Among Darren’s low points at Sumwun is when his at-work nemesis Clyde gives him the nickname “Buck,” which he intends to be racially derogatory. But Darren embraces it as an alternate personality. In your view, does achieving success in high-pressure industries require people to adopt a sort of second self?
Askaripour: Darren does change a lot, and I think that those types of high-pressure environments do change people, either consciously or unconsciously. But I think the question is, at some point, or at least the question I had when I was working at the startup, was, is this worth it? The parts of myself that I am giving up, not just to fit in but to get ahead. And sometimes it’s not.
An environment like Sumwun is not generally conducive to individuality. Sometimes people refer to a place like that as a cult. It does have some cultish qualities because they’re looking to identify special people and people with special talents, but for the most part, if you’re going to be successful, you need to drink the Kool-Aid and the Kool-Aid needs to taste good. But is it possible for Darren to have retained his sense of individuality or sense of self and not capitulate or change or assimilate in any way? Yes, and I think he could have gotten ahead maybe somewhere else because there are those types of environments that genuinely do practice what they preach, and they do want people to come as they are. But as someone looking to get into any industry, you need to do the legwork and you need to be self-aware, maybe more so than I think some young people are when they’re first entering the workforce. There are some things you learn on the job: you learn what feels good and what doesn’t and the bargains you are going to have to make and the changes you are willing to make. At least that is the story of my life.
Rumpus: Why did you choose the business model for Sumwun that you did, in which individuals and employees of corporations have access to therapy services that have been outsourced to an international pool of unlicensed “assistants”?
Askaripour: The idea of the company was actually one I wanted to build at one point. I already had notes on a company like Sumwun in 2012. I came up with the idea when I was walking around the East Village thinking about one of my friends who is in therapy, and I was wondering, what if typical Western therapy doesn’t actually work for everyone? So that, maybe if I spoke to someone like a rabbi in Israel or an imam in Iran, they might say something that could reach me? It could be like Uber where we get these people to sell slots of their time to individuals, and the kicker would be not just that they come from around the world, but that they are not certified. And, of course, there would be a disclaimer; we wouldn’t call them therapists, we would call them “assistants” or “friends.”
So, then in 2016, when I left my job, Talkspace was getting big, with all those Michael Phelps ads on the subway, and they were doing video and text therapy but with licensed therapists. And eventually, I decided I wasn’t interested in the idea anymore. So, when I was writing the book I thought, why don’t I still build this company but fictionally? So, I just took it one step further. I thought about what this company would look like, I built out an organizational chart, I laid out their offering, how much they would charge; I did everything, but just fictionally.
Rumpus: Finally, one of the key takeaways from your book was the value, professionally, of having a mentor or even just a good role model, who either looks like you or you can identify with. Who is that for you?
Askaripour: For me, one is the actor Jay Ellis from the TV show Insecure. He somehow got his hands on the book and he reached out to me and he was someone who I came to lean on just to learn the different ins and outs of his industry. I could tell that he was genuine in his outreach and in connecting with me, that he was someone I could turn to with questions. Another is the writer Jason Reynolds. I met him at the Rhode Island Writers Colony, which is dedicated to writers of color. This conference was incredible. It changed my life in 2018. It was something that helped me write this book and honestly bring back the confidence I lost. But a different kind of confidence, one that was healthier and more balanced and rooted in my industry. It was about me paying my dues as a writer as opposed to trying to suck whatever energy I had from the sales world and injecting it into this. Whenever I connect with Jason, he just gives me a wealth of knowledge and I know he does the same for dozens, if not hundreds, of other writers.
Those are the two people who come to mind, but I’m hoping that when I am in the position, I’ll be able to help usher in a new wave of writers. They don’t have to be young, just anyone who is looking to make it in this industry. Maybe do a monthly Zoom call so I can pay it forward.
Photograph of Mateo Askaripour by Andrew “FifthGod” Askaripour.