Friday, March 26, 2021

Bestselling Author Mateo Askaripour (CAS ‘12)

Mateo Askaripour

Mateo Askaripour (CAS ‘12) is a Brooklyn-based writer whose debut novel, “Black Buck” - which Colson Whitehead calls a “mesmerizing novel, executing a high wire act full of verve and dark, comic energy” 
- is a New York Times bestseller and a TODAY Show Read with Jenna book club pick. He sat down with us to talk about his experiences as an NYU student, his introduction to yerba mate and the importance of the writing community he discovered at the Rhode Island Writers Colony.

What is your favorite memory of your time at NYU?

I have a lot, but maybe Welcome Week during my freshman year. I'm from New York and I was young when I came to NYU – just sixteen.  I remember thinking, “Hey, I’m in the city, I’m living on my own, I’m around the coolest people ever.” I was a little wide-eyed, but I didn't get too caught up in the scene. It was just so much fun. I genuinely had such a good time and met so many people.

Mateo Askaripour: his story continues

Mateo with inaugural RAs and John Sexton at an event in Abu Dhabi
Mateo with inaugural RA's and John Sexton at an event in Abu Dhabi

Another favorite memory is when I went to Abu Dhabi for Spring Break in 2010 as part of a group of RA’s and faculty. We were the first RA’s in Abu Dhabi ever, and we were brought around like we were royalty. It was such a different experience. Abu Dhabi in and of itself was wild.

What did you study at NYU?

I was a Politics major and a Middle Eastern Islamic Studies minor. The minor was primarily comprised of studying the Persian language, and my teacher was one of the foremost Persian scholars in America. He gave me a recommendation for the Critical Language scholarship, which is an intense program through the State Department. I got in and was flown to the country of Tajikistan, which is the poorest former Soviet Union country in Central Asia – at least in terms of GDP per capita. I studied Persian out there for two months – an incredible experience that I had because of NYU.

Throughout my time at NYU I studied three languages: Persian; Italian, when I was in Florence; and Arabic, when I was in Abu Dhabi. 

How did growing up in New York impact your NYU experiences?

I grew up in Long Island. I was very independent, and I often felt like an “other,” since, after a certain age, I was the only Black kid on certain sports teams and in certain classes. Going to college, I wanted to continue to be free and autonomous, and NYU was the perfect place for that. It was a place where you could be by yourself, or you could engage with people from all around the world. There is not one type of person who attends NYU, but if there was, I’d say that it’s the type of person who isn’t afraid to chart their own path, who is open to living in the city, open to meeting other people, going outside their comfort zone, exposing themselves to different modes of thinking and to the vitality of life. When I went to NYU, I felt that, and it activated a lot of the parts of myself that I was seeking to grow. At NYU, you find out who you are real quick.

Were you a first-generation college student?

I was a first-generation American. My mom went to Queens College for a period of time, but she left early to study nursing in England. My father was studying engineering in England, and that’s how my parents met, but he didn’t finish his degree. My grandmother partially raised me and my brothers. She was an English teacher in Jamaica, which meant that the written word, the obtainment of knowledge, and the desire to use your education to further yourself and grow were embedded in my DNA from a young age. The same was true for my grandfather who, for a majority of my life, was in Jamaica. He was someone who believed that education is power. 

Mateo and Quemuel Arroyo (CAS '12, WAG '20) at an NYU event
Mateo and Quemuel Arroyo (CAS '12, WAG '20) at an NYU event

For me, when I got into NYU, I definitely wanted to study my major, but I was also dedicated to learning more about myself and about other people and modes of living. I ended up learning so much in and out of the classroom, and I am the better for it. There are times when I think, where would I be if I hadn’t gone to NYU? All of the great people that I know, my best friends, are from my time at NYU, for which I am grateful. 

With the influence of your grandparents, it makes sense that you became a writer.

It wasn’t a straight path. I don’t have a formal writing background. I don’t have my MFA. My senior year of college, I took an elective in creative writing, and I really liked it. My professor was also encouraging. I felt as though there was another side of me that I knew I had, but I was really tapping into it in that course.

NYU set me up. When I got back from living in Tajikistan, I was living with my parents and using CareerNet to apply to thirty jobs a day. I felt fortunate to still have access to career development resources. And I ended up getting an interview at a start-up because I had some background working in social media. My senior year, I had a work study job at Hashtag NYU – we were performing social media audits for different departments. Fast forward to months later, I was offered an internship in social media and community management at a tech startup and I had the skills already because of that work study job. 

I was writing content for social media, then I started their sales team. It took me a few weeks on the job to learn how to speak compellingly. But I had this confidence instilled in me to chart my own path. I felt similar to when I began college. It wasn’t until I left that job that I then turned to writing and felt confident enough to pivot, which was something I gained while at NYU – with so much change going on, you have to change as well.

I had work study jobs throughout my whole time at NYU. At La Pietra in Florence, I was originally going to be a tour guide but it didn’t fit in my schedule. The team there was accommodating and offered me the opportunity to write stories about my experiences and facilitate events. 

My first year of college, I worked at America Reads. It was another way of teaching me about the variety of people who work in the city and making sure that I was living to my purpose of helping other people to get ahead.

You achieved what many would consider a dream job - a director of sales development at a microlearning company. Why did you leave?

I became disillusioned with the world of sales and start-ups. For years, I believed that we were changing the world through what we were selling. In 2016, I began to wake up. I no longer felt as though my life’s purpose was aligned with what the company was looking to do. I began to pull away. I needed an outlet and I turned to writing. Fiction was a specific form of salvation for me. 

When I eventually left the job, I didn’t know who I was. I had distanced myself from my family and close friends, but they were still there to help me rebuild myself with the better parts of who I was and who I wanted to become. 

I decided to focus on writing and I traveled for ten months. When I came back, I was living with my parents on Long Island, and I began consulting with tech start-ups. But it was on my terms. I saw that work as the side-hustle and writing as my ultimate goal. Fortunately, after writing three manuscripts, the third one, “Black Buck,” got me an agent and a book deal.

What was it like attending the Rhode Island Writers Colony?

I attended in 2018, while working on my second draft of “Black Buck.” As a writer, when I began to try to break into the world, I reached out to people but I didn’t feel the same warmth that I’d received in the world of tech. Eventually, I decided to go it alone and consume as much art as possible: I went to readings, watched documentaries, went to plays, and entirely submerged myself in the act of creation. 

After I finished the first draft of my second manuscript, I saw a post on social media about the Rhode Island Writers Colony. It is primarily an opportunity for people of color. You go away for two weeks and it gives you the space, time and community to write. At first, I was wary, since I’d thrown myself so fully into the start-up community and was hesitant to do it with another. But it looked like a cool opportunity, so I wrote an artist statement and sent it in. I got accepted and it was life changing. This was a community and a family that I didn’t know that I needed. 

While at the Rhode Island Writers Colony I worked on my second draft. I also wrote my first real essay that helped me realize that I could be an essayist as well. The piece was published in Medium, with the help of Morgan Jerkins. She’s the one who reached out to me and gave me the opportunity.

To this day, the folks from the colony are my closest writing friends. They are the people I can turn to when I need to discuss book deals or challenges I am having in the industry. Without them, the road to being a published author would have been far rockier and less fun.

Congratulations on your novel, "Black Buck," becoming a New York Times Bestseller and a Today Show Read with Jenna book club pick. What has the positive response to the book been like for you?

This is a dream come true. These are the things I’d wished for back when I’d first turned my gaze toward fiction. I hoped that one day my book would be a New York Times bestseller, and picked for a book club, but beyond that, I hoped that it would really resonate with readers and help them in a tangible and practical way. And that is how I define success today. 

Whenever anyone writes to me and says, “You don’t know me, but you wrote about me in your book. I saw my life reflected back at me in your pages and I feel less alone because of it and more empowered,” that, for me, is what I wanted. Or someone else reads it and says, “I’m a 65-year old Jewish woman, but this book spoke to me in so many ways because there have been times when I’ve been the only woman in a space and I know what it’s like.” Or, “This helped me become a better ally beyond the performance. I now have the tools to truly live as an ally.” The response has been overwhelmingly positive and I am so grateful for it every day. Despite the fact that I’ve done so many interviews and events over the past few months, I am feeling more inspired than ever before to just keep working and continue, hopefully, making an impact and living into my purpose. 

What is your writing process?

When I was first writing, it was a lot of me figuring out what it meant to write and what it meant to be a writer. I went to coffee shops, but it wasn’t working for me. I read that writers like to work in quiet spaces, so I went to the New York Public Library, but that didn’t work either. By the time I figured out what actually worked for me, it was probably toward the end of my second manuscript. I created a routine to make sure that I was going to come to the page with energy, that I was going to write when I said I would, and that I was going to be inspired and awake enough.

When I was writing the first draft of “Black Buck,” I was consulting for tech start-ups. I could still come up with my own schedule, but I wasn’t able to write every day. Now, I am writing full time. 

My routine begins the night before - I tell myself that I’ll be writing the next day. I wake up and meditate. Meditation is key to my process. I make a waffle with sunflower-seed butter every day when I am writing. I have a writing plate, knife and fork. I drink a splash of orange juice. Then I prepare my drink of choice, yerba mate. I fell in love with yerba mate while at NYU in Abu Dhabi. One of my brothers had told me about it, but I hadn’t tried it, then in Abu Dhabi I watched a documentary all about yerba mate. By the time I got back to the square for my senior year, I was drinking it in Washington Square Park. People would ask me about it and I would share it with them. That was part of my NYU experience.

I watch two to three hours of music videos to get inspired and wake up. I look at an inspiration folder of people I love and who inspire me through their art and the way that they lived or live. A few examples are: Nina Simone, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, Fred Hampton, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Dave Chappelle and Oprah. Then I dance a little bit, then I write. 

In terms of the actual writing, I have an idea of where I am going with a story and a lot of it is figuring it out as I go.

Mateo and Quemuel Arroyo (CAS '12, WAG '20) at Graduation
Mateo and Quemuel Arroyo (CAS '12, WAG '20) at Commencement

What advice do you have for current students?

Understand that who you were in the past doesn’t dictate who you will become. Life is full of winding roads and multiple paths and detours and, though it may feel sometimes like you are on the wrong path, in hindsight you will realize that all paths will lead you to where you need to be. Trust yourself. Love yourself. Take care of yourself.

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