Author Mateo Askaripour discussed his first novel, his struggle to find his authentic voice and how he became a published writer with SUNY New Paltz students via video conference on Feb. 2, 2021. Kristopher Jansma, associate professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program, joined Askaripour to participate in a dynamic presentation and Q&A session about life as a professional writer.
Askaripour’s first novel, Black Buck, published this January, was chosen by Today Show co-host Jenna Bush Hager as her January “Read with Jenna” Book Club selection. The novel is a satirical, yet earnest story centered around main character Darren who reinvents himself as Buck after seizing an opportunity to join the sales staff of a tech startup company and realizing he is the only black person in the entire company. The story details Buck’s meteoric rise in sales and corresponding alienation from his family and friends, while shining a light on the daily indignities endured by people of color in corporate America.
With a background in startups and sales, Askaripour tapped some of his personal and professional experiences to inform the environment and characters in Black Buck. He said of the novel’s dark comedy: “You begin to see the humor transmogrifying into horror from page to page. It’s funny in the beginning, but by the end you begin to question, does this actually happen? And if it does, how does it feel for the person on the receiving end?”
After rapidly rising to the position of Sales Director for a dot com outfit, Askaripour began to question his vocation and larger sense of purpose. He started writing as a creative outlet for his disillusionment with the world of sales. This practice took many forms, beginning with essays and articles on technology and sales, and segueing into various styles of fiction writing. Askaripour took time to explore and experiment with how to write, as well as with what to write.
On his motivation for writing, Askaripour explained that he had reached a creative dark place after trying unsuccessfully to tailor his writing to what he imagined would be commercially successful. “Do I want to get an agent? Sure. Do I want a book deal? Sure. But what is more important for me now is to write a book that feels true. To write a book about what I want, for whom I want to serve – with the audience in mind – in the way that I want,” he said.
To achieve these goals, Askaripour emersed himself not only in writing that felt more authentic to him, but also in reading, attending other writer’s events, going to art exhibits and dance recitals – essentially exposing himself to creative work in as many ways possible. Success soon followed as he began writing Black Buck in January of 2018, partnered with an agent in February of 2019, and sold his novel in August 2019.
Offering the students in attendance some key advice, Askaripour shared, “The biggest thing that has helped me is taking risks. I meditate every day and towards the end of my meditation, I remind myself to have the courage to take risks. And risks are relative – they look different to all of us. . . Sometimes it is just reaching out and sending a tweet. Sometimes it is letting someone know when their works speaks to you. . . Just put yourself out there.”
Askaripour also mentioned that reading his manuscript aloud to himself proved to be a valuable practice during the editing process. It helped him to hear the cadence of the language as well as to identify when characters were using words that didn’t ring true.
Another tip that he shared with students was to encourage them to find a writing community, in whatever form that may take. He noted that the prestige of a program is less important than the emotional and intellectual nourishment that a tribe can provide. Askaripour found this community in the Rhode Island Writers Colony where he was a writer-in-residence in 2018.
Finally, he reassured the students in attendance, “I’m here for you. I want as many people to write and publish as possible. You winning helps me win.”
Askaripour is currently doing press for his debut novel and is working on ideas for his second novel. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @AskMateo.