The PEN Ten: An Interview with Mateo Askaripour
1. How does your writing navigate truth? What is the relationship between truth and fiction?
Truth and honesty are at the core of my writing. I wrote two books that didn’t achieve the aims I had while writing them: to get an agent and then a book deal. But I had to write those books in order to arrive at a place where I realized that writing something that felt true—true to me, the people I want to serve, and the reality of the nation we live in—was priority number one.
It’s important to note that truth has nothing to do with rendering my own lived experiences on the page, even though some of them and their variations are certainly there. It’s moreso about writing something that is true to the experiences of my characters, which in many cases, will hopefully reflect the experiences of my readers.
I believe that truth is at the heart of all good fiction. When a book resonates with someone on a molecular (or even spiritual) level, it’s because something in that book—a character, setting, struggle, triumph, or feeling—rang true for the reader, and that’s one of the most beautiful parts of fiction.
2. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
My creative process revolves around a routine, which begins the night before I sit down to write. Before I go to sleep, I tell myself that I’m going to write the next day, so that I don’t even question it when I wake up.
From there, my routine involves meditation; normal hygiene activities; eating the same breakfast with the same utensils—I know, this is getting a little wild—preparing yerba mate, which gets my heart pumping and creativity buzzing; watching two to three hours of music videos and movie trailers; dancing; and then, finally, bringing my fingers to the keyboard.
But beyond the routine, what’s most important is that when I’m writing, I’m fully present in the act. I’m not coming to the page with any hesitation, doubt, or anxiety. My agent, editor, and other people—critics, bookstagrammers, award judges—are not in the passenger seat. It’s just me, a Word document, the story, and my characters.
As for maintaining inspiration, it’s built into my routine—the music videos, movie trailers, and music help with that. I will also look at a folder, aptly named “Inspiration,” which contains 10-15 photographs of some of the people whose work and lives inspire me. I take a second to look into each of their eyes and tell them that I’m going to try my best to create as fearlessly, and serve others through my art, as they have.
“No one owns the act of writing or any other form of creativity, and it’s when you allow yourself to create what you want, in the way you want, and for whom you want that you will come up with something that you’re not only proud of, but is also original. Originality isn’t dead; in fact, it’s alive and thriving within and around us.”
3. What is one book or piece of writing you love that readers might not know about?
The Spook Who Sat by the Door, published in 1969, by Sam Greenlee. I only read it last August, so long after Black Buck was written and sold, but whew, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Sam Greenlee wrote a book that I’d say is the book that my own is in conversation with—a difficult, albeit humor-filled, conversation spanning over half a century.
Reading his book made me feel even prouder of what I’d written, but it also showed me how much further we have to go as a nation, world, and species.
4. What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing your book?
That there are no rules to writing. Many people swear that there are, and that if you don’t follow them, you won’t be successful—but I call bullshit. No one owns the act of writing or any other form of creativity, and it’s when you allow yourself to create what you want, in the way you want, and for whom you want that you will come up with something that you’re not only proud of, but is also original. Originality isn’t dead; in fact, it’s alive and thriving within and around us.
5. When did you first call yourself a writer? How did it feel?
I called myself a writer when I began pursuing writing seriously. Some people who have published books don’t feel comfortable calling themselves writers—imposter’s syndrome is real. But I came from a world where only the bold survived, so I took that energy into my journey as a writer, even though in the beginning, it may have been to my detriment.
Even so, calling myself a writer—despite not having an agent, book deal, or any other trappings of the literary apparatus—was one way for me to bet on myself. A writer is someone who takes writing seriously. In my mind, it’s as simple as that.
“As far as my right to free expression, I’ve had it challenged too many times to count. The challenge usually comes in the form of gaslighting¬—people saying, ‘tread carefully,’ and the like. The way I see it, if I allow someone to take away my freedom of expression even for a second, then I am agreeing to be enslaved, and there’s no way in hell that’s happening.”
6. What do you consider to be the biggest threat to free expression today? Have there been times when your right to free expression has been challenged?
Fear and its various permutations. That’s what it all comes down to. It’s something I struggled with when I began writing and publishing deeply personal essays in 2018. I was so afraid of what people I knew would say that I didn’t even promote my pieces. And I justified it by saying, “I’m gaining a new audience of strangers who will know me, the writer,” but that was a cop out.
It wasn’t until I read an essay to my younger brother—about a bizarre racist experience I had while a teenager—that I realized I couldn’t hide anymore. After I read it to him, he took a breath and said, “I’ve had similar experiences,” and that was that. I wasn’t going to let my fear override the need to both produce and promote work that could potentially help others feel less alone.
As far as my right to free expression, I’ve had it challenged too many times to count. The challenge usually comes in the form of gaslighting—people saying, “tread carefully,” and the like. The way I see it, if I allow someone to take away my freedom of expression even for a second, then I am agreeing to be enslaved, and there’s no way in hell that’s happening.
7. How can writers affect resistance movements?
Writing is resistance in and of itself. I can’t think of one revolutionary movement throughout history that writing—manifestos, pamphlets, subversive newspapers, blog posts, and so much more—wasn’t central to. Look at Frederick Douglass’s autobiography and what it did to bolster the abolitionist movement. All of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s writings. A more recent example is Black Joy Project, a book by Kleaver Cruz, which will come out in a year or two. The list goes on and on.
What writing in the service of a larger movement does—no shade, but I wouldn’t consider a book about 20-something Sally and Jessica fighting over the handsome Leonard in service of a larger movement—is add fuel to the fire, bring more people to the fight, and in some cases, give people more tools to battle against daily transgressions big and small.
At the same time, writing can also destabilize resistance movements. We’ve seen a lot of this over the past year. Newspapers will report on the same event with wildly different headlines. Perpetrators of violence against Black and Brown bodies will be propped up as people “just doing their job.” Domestic terrorists are “lone, troubled gunmen.” All of this manipulates reality in a way where the person on the sidelines, who could be swayed one way or another, can’t establish a baseline of reality. The power of writing is truly infinite.
8. The narrator of your debut novel, Black Buck, is on a mission to “help other Black men and women on a mission to sell their visions all the way to the top.” The selling aspect aside, as a writer who said in an interview with Publishers Weekly that prior to selling your book you were busy “figuring out how to be a writer” because you “had no training, no MFA,” what advice do you have for young writers—and specifically young writers of color—trying to break through?
This is a tough one. First, forget the industry itself. When I came into this game, I was too focused on a “who’s who” of the literary world, and it didn’t serve me at all. It’s also easy to think that people who are in the limelight a lot—on social media or otherwise—are those you need to take your literary cues from. Incorrect. You should read widely, see whose work resonates with you, and then study them.
Secondly, ask yourself why you’re writing to begin with. It’s the same as asking yourself, “What’s my purpose as a writer?” That purpose, and the intention that comes with it, will guide your work—at least whatever you’re working on at the time. It’s okay for this to change.
Thirdly, create without judgment. Write down every idea that comes to you, and train yourself to never think any idea you come up with is dumb. You can go back to these ideas months later, refine them, and if you’re still as excited as you were when you first had them, make them a reality. But what I’m also getting at is not judging yourself as you’re writing—save that for after you’ve completed your work, which is the most important thing in this whole process. Finishing. Some people never get there because they never start.
As for advice for writers of color—young, older, and everyone in between—consume as much art by creators of color as possible. With Black Buck, it took help from another writer for me to see that while my work is original, it’s a part of a larger tradition, and learning this only empowered me to go harder.
“I wanted to explore the concept that so many of us Black and Brown people know: ‘Take it until you make it.’ Take it until you get the job. Take it until you get the promotion. Take it until you’re making six figures. The line, as you see in the book, gets pushed and pushed and pushed. . . Fortunately, as we see in the book, all isn’t lost. This concept of success, and the cost that many of us have to pay to achieve it, is the driving force behind every page.”
9. Among other things, your debut novel is an experiment with structure, in that the narrative design reads as an instruction manual, a sales manual—and I must admit that the Author’s Note, which I thought was you, even had me fooled initially. How did this idea come to you? Was this always the structure?
Ha, you know, that Author’s Note seems to fool a lot of people. I didn’t intend to throw people off, and it’s presented a few complications when I have to explain to people that, no, I am not my protagonist, even though we do share some similarities. But it’s cool, just a part of writing fiction that partially stems from lived experiences.
I remember the night I wrote the Author’s Note—January 8, 2018. I knew I wanted to begin a new book that January, which would be the third manuscript I’d work on in a year and a half, but I didn’t plan on beginning it that night. Some writers claim divine intervention, and I don’t know if I’d say that’s what it was, but I felt moved to sit down and start this novel, and the Author’s Note just poured out of me—as if Buck, my main character, was controlling my fingers.
But before I wrote the Author’s Note, I knew I wanted the book to have that memoir/sales manual structure. Still, it wasn’t until the fourth draft, around a year later, that I decided to add those bolded, direct addresses to the reader where Buck breaks the fourth wall to dispense sales advice.
Throughout the entire process of writing the book, I just did what felt natural and interesting to me. I hoped others would find it interesting too, and be able to take a few gems away from the book to advance their own lives and the lives of the people they love. That was my main intention behind having the novel double as a sales manual.
10. Darren, the novel’s protagonist, reimagines himself as Buck after receiving an opportunity to work at successful startup. Though the persona is helpful as a salesman, it blurs the reality of his true self. What role does sense of self—both having one and the consequences of losing it—play in the novel? What questions did you ask yourself in writing this aspect of the character and novel? What did you want to explore?
Darren’s change from who he was before he began working at Sumwun—the startup—to becoming Buck, centers around one question: What happens when someone who everyone says has potential is actually given the chance to fulfill it in an extreme way, but without the proper guidance?
It’s hard to conceive of a world where Darren entered an environment like Sumwun, didn’t change, and thrived. Sumwun, and organizations like it, are predicated on a certain degree of assimilation—only accepting the parts of an employee that contribute to the company’s mission, and forcing them to leave everything else at the door.
With this as the setup, I wanted to explore the concept that so many of us Black and Brown people know: “Take it until you make it.” Take it until you get the job. Take it until you get the promotion. Take it until you’re making six figures. The line, as you see in the book, gets pushed and pushed and pushed until Buck believes he’s on the other side, and it’s there that he forgets those from his neighborhood—his mother, girlfriend, best friend, and others—who have loved him unconditionally. And it’s also there, on the other side of the line, where Buck becomes unrecognizable. Fortunately, as we see in the book, all isn’t lost. This concept of success, and the cost that many of us have to pay to achieve it, is the driving force behind every page.
I could spend another couple thousand words on this question alone, but the last thing I’ll say is that I wanted to throw into question the notion of “self” itself. Is there a core “us” that makes us who we are? Or are we constantly shifting, and if so, what does that mean when someone is accused of “selling out” or “not keeping it real?”
Reader, you tell me.
Mateo Askaripour’s work aims to empower people of color to seize opportunities for advancement, no matter the obstacle. He was a 2018 Rhode Island Writers Colony writer-in-residence, and his writing has appeared in Entrepreneur, Literary Hub, Catapult, The Rumpus, Medium, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn.