According to Mateo Askaripour, there’s nothing about writing that doesn’t make him happy—and his enthusiasm and perseverance have all paid off: on Jan. 12, 2021, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will publish his novel Black Buck.
The protagonist, Darren Vender, is a 22-year-old underachiever working at a Starbucks in New York City who gets his big break when a regular customer, the CEO of a mysterious tech start-up, offers him a job. Part of an elite sales team and the only Black person in the company, Darren reinvents himself as Buck and sets out to empower young people of color.
“MLK, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Frederick Douglass were all salesmen,” Darren says. “Hell, Nina Simone, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and every other black woman who achieved any leap of success was a saleswoman.... Each and every one of these people was selling something more precious than gold: a vision. A vision for what the world could look like if millions of people were to change their minds—the hardest thing to change. I am a black man on a mission. No, I am a black salesman on a mission. And the point of this book—which I’m writing from my penthouse overlooking Central Park—is to help other black men and women on a mission sell their visions all the way to the top.”
I watched a Zoom interview with Askaripour before I spoke with him, and his confidence and charisma are undisputable. He was the director of sales development at a start-up at age 24. “But I always told stories,” he says. “I made my emails a creative writing exercise, a narrative. Writing was an escape, but now it’s my life. And Darren is partially me. My journey and my book are one and the same. I feel a level of responsibility to help people.”
Askaripour’s gift for persuasion caught the attention of Tina Pohlman, an agent at Ross Yoon Agency (who was at Union Literary when she sold Black Buck to HMH), who calls his query letter wonderful and down to earth. “He’s a salesman,” she says. “It was a well pitched letter.”
And Askaripour says that when HMH editor Pilar Garcia-Brown courted him and said about Black Buck, “This is like a sales manual,” he was thrilled—he remembers thinking, “She got it!”
In May 2016, Askaripour gave up weekend partying and started writing: articles, a blog, and his first novel. That August, he quit his job and finished his manuscript in four and a half months. From there, the path was about “figuring out how to be a writer,” he says. “I had no training, no MFA, and wondered sometimes what I was doing—if maybe I should stay in tech. What I did was read more and write more. I wrote two books in a year, just trial and error.”
In the process, Askaripour went to Costa Rica, googled literary agencies, sent queries, and made phone calls. “Even rejection letters made me happy,” he says. Back in New York, he continued querying agents. He got nine responses, but “nothing happened.”
Askaripour went to Bali and on to Bangkok. He rewrote book number two and got more responses to his queries—but still nothing happened. Finally, he says, “I threw external ideas out the window and decided I was going to have fun and write the book I wanted to write.” In January 2018, he started Black Buck.
Then, at the Rhode Island Writers Colony, Askaripour found his community. “It changed my life,” he says. “I felt supported as a writer. I gave a reading and a man came up to me after and wanted to buy my book. There was no published book, but the validation made me think I could get to the place I wanted to be.”
Askaripour was in San Francisco when he got a phone call from Pohlman. “We hit it off right away,” he says. Pohlman asked him to sign with her. He immediately called a brother (he has four, all older), who advised, “Wait. Don’t let her punk you!”
But despite other offers, Askaripour went with Pohlman. Her experience as an editor for 25 years impressed him, and she was equally impressed with him. “The query for Black Buck came over the transom,” she says. “He’d sent 20 pages and I asked to see the rest and devoured it. My reading of the book made him happy and we really clicked. I remember he made me wait before he agreed to representation. He’s so funny. I love him.”
Pohlman signed Askaripour in February 2019 and that July sent Black Buck out to 15 editors. The first call she got was from Garcia-Brown, who had just been promoted to editor at HMH. (Coincidentally, the novel is set at 3 Park Avenue, the address of HMH’s New York offices.) Garcia-Brown says that she, like Pohlman, tore through the manuscript and brought it to an editorial meeting. “Askaripour is so smart, with such energy and verve—a great voice and accessible. The book is a sharp look at diversity. People were in the office until 8 p.m. reading. Everyone was excited, but Tina didn’t want me to speak to Mateo unless we had an offer. I knew we could make a preempt, so Tina set up the call, and it was a great conversation. Mateo has a real vision and is able to communicate that vision.”
The preempt offer for North American rights was in the mid-six figures. It’s the most Garcia-Brown has ever paid. “My biggest book to date,” she confirms.
Askaripour says he was thrilled with Garcia-Brown. She didn’t want to tear the book apart; he felt like she understood it. And he had encouraging emails from everyone at HMH. But still... “What about an auction?” he asked Pohlman.
Pohlman thought HMH was a great fit, but what sealed the deal, Askaripour says, was a friend who told him intent trumps money. “So then,” he adds, “it was a no-brainer.”
The contract was signed in September. “It’s been a dream,” Pohlman says. “I was only an agent for a year when I sold this book. I loved being an editor, but it’s great being an agent. I love the thrill of discovery.”
Askaripour says he’s grateful every day. “After we took the preempt, I flew to New York and went into the bathroom on the plane, and I just cried.”
Correction: This article initially stated that Askaripour has three brothers. He has four. It also called Askaripour "head of tech" at a startup when he was, in fact, director of sales development. In addition, this article has been updated with further information.