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Mateo Askaripour On His Darkly Comic Debut Novel

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Black Buck" is the new darkly comic novel by Mateo Askaripour that gets its title from an old racial slur. The story opens with Darren, a young Black man, working at a Starbucks in midtown Manhattan. One of his regular customers, a white startup guy, comes in with his usual order, and Darren tells him he doesn't really know what he wants. Here's the author, Mateo Askaripour, reading.

MATEO ASKARIPOUR: (Reading) He says, believe it or not, when you come here and order something, you're not ordering a drink. You're ordering a solution, a solution to fatigue, irritability and anything else that a lack of coffee means to you. So if you'll indulge me, I'm confident that the Nitro Cold Brew with sweet cream is what you actually want. It has 10 grams less sugar than your regular, 40 fewer calories and 140 milligrams more caffeine. But at the end of the day, those are just numbers. So if you buy the Nitro Cold Brew and don't like it, you can come back, and I'll give you your regular free of charge. What do you think? Silence. I just stared back into his eyes until he said, did you just try to reverse close me?

SIMON: Their encounter will lead to Darren going to work for his customer in a hot startup. Darren, the only Black salesperson in the company, recreates himself as Buck, a ruthless deal-closer, and becomes a man he doesn't recognize. Mateo Askaripour was himself in startup sales, and we asked what that encounter between Darren and Rhett sets off.

ASKARIPOUR: Well, I think subconsciously Darren saw in Rhett an opportunity that he didn't know he need or wanted. And Rhett also saw the same, an opportunity for him to activate the potential of someone who he likely saw part of himself in but also that could help his company get ahead.

SIMON: I've read a number of interviews with you. As we noted, you've been a director of sales development. You seem to put a different percentage on how much of this novel is autobiographical each and every time you give a different interview.

ASKARIPOUR: (Laughter).

SIMON: I'm wondering how you feel today.

ASKARIPOUR: Where I am now is that the book is completely factual when it comes to my emotions. I have felt every single thing that these characters feel. It's the only way that I was able to imbue them with feeling that resonates with myself and hopefully with those who read it. But if I have to put a number, I don't know, 25.8% (laughter).

SIMON: That makes sense to me somehow. Why does Darren become Buck, create his character over again?

ASKARIPOUR: Out of necessity. You know, many of us reinvent ourselves without knowing it until we look back and say, wow, I'm different than the person I was yesterday. But it's out of necessity. Darren is thrown into an unfamiliar and hostile environment where he is the resident other. He is not just the only person of color in the entire company, but he's the only Black person. And if he didn't change whether he knew it or not, he would have been crushed. And it doesn't mean that he had to change because he could have stayed true to who he was before he began working there, gotten fired or quit and gone somewhere else that championed his differences. But that's just not how it played out. And this story is not just one for fiction, but one that plays out in reality over and over and over again for so many of us.

SIMON: I mean, some of this is played for laughs, but it's hard not to feel a sting for Darren when all the white Type A salespeople tell him how much he looks like almost any famous Black person in the world that they've ever seen.

ASKARIPOUR: Yeah. Well, you begin to see the humor transmogrifying into horror - right? - from page to page where the example that you just cited, Scott, it's funny in the beginning, but then 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? I also didn't want to write a book with 400 pages of tragedy and trauma. Better people have already done that and will do that. So I use humor as a in.

SIMON: I've got to tell you about a reaction I had. I found the message at the heart of this novel to be very American, that the power is in the pitch. You know, Darren says at one point earlier in the book, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, they were all great salespeople.

ASKARIPOUR: Yeah.

SIMON: And I think that's true. But wasn't the power of their message at the essence of their success? It wasn't just their salesmanship.

ASKARIPOUR: Yeah, I agree, but I think it starts somewhere else. It starts in the heart. You have to actually believe your message in order to put it into a pitch that resonates with other people, because many of us have a great [expletive] meter, Scott, right? So if someone doesn't actually believe what they're selling, especially when it comes to the vision of a different world, no one's going to buy it.

SIMON: Well, I'll just tell you. I mean, it's not unlike "The Great Gatsby" in its own way.

ASKARIPOUR: Is Rhett like Gatsby? Or is Buck?

SIMON: I'm going to be inspired by your ability to put percentages on things by saying...

ASKARIPOUR: (Laughter).

SIMON: No, no, no, give me a chance here now, OK?

ASKARIPOUR: Yeah, yeah.

SIMON: It's 34.6% Rhett and 63.7% Buck.

ASKARIPOUR: I'll take it.

SIMON: OK (laughter).

ASKARIPOUR: I'm convinced, yeah.

SIMON: Without getting too much into the suspense that you build, does Buck risk losing his moral compass?

ASKARIPOUR: He most definitely does.

SIMON: And is that the price of success?

ASKARIPOUR: I guess it depends on who has to pay it and what success means to them.

SIMON: Yeah. Mateo Askaripour - his debut novel, "Black Buck" - thank you so much for being with us.

ASKARIPOUR: Appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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