"I will say this in no uncertain terms: I wouldn’t be a writer without Long Island," says Mateo Askaripour, whose debut novel, "Black Buck" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26) was published in January to critical rapture, and has now hit the New York Times bestseller list.
The protagonist is a Brooklynite named Darren Vender. First in his class at Bronx Science High School, Darren decided to help his mom financially rather than apply to college, and now manages a Starbucks. One day, Darren persuades a powerful white exec to try a different drink than his usual. This unsolicited display of native sales know-how changes Darren's life, whooshing him into the world of the tech startup.
"Black Buck" opens with a note to the reader from Darren, writing years later from his penthouse apartment to share his sales secrets, "to help other Black men and women … sell their visions all the way to the top."
"Understand," he says, "that I want all people to be successful, but in the same way Starbucks can't just give out Mocha Frappucinos to everyone who doesn't have $14, I can't help everyone. If you're not Black but have this book in your hands, I want you to think of yourself as an honorary Black person."
Askaripour, 29, a Bellport High School graduate who now lives in Brooklyn, will talk about his book in a virtual event hosted by Huntington's Book Revue at 7 p.m. on March 10. He recently spoke to Newsday about his uninhibited and timely blend of satire, inspiration and truth-telling.
What's the influence of your Long Island background on "Black Buck"?
Growing up on Long Island with an Iranian father and a Jamaican mother, there were times that I felt like an other — the only Black boy in my friend group, in honors classes, on the travel soccer team. I knew about making the negotiations that so many of us have to make to survive and thrive. When Darren starts working at an all-white tech startup in Manhattan, a complete 180 from the world that he comes from, I was able to channel my own experience.
Then there are all the teachers, friends and family who believed in me from the start — I had to prove them right. I recently founded a scholarship at my high school in my grandmother's name, the Clarine Case Celebration Scholarship. It's a $1,000 award to one graduating senior of color based on their response to a writing prompt that changes every year.
What parts of "Black Buck" are autobiographical?
I lived in Bed-Stuy for a year, a block away from the corner in the book. … Though I never worked at Starbucks, shortly after I graduated from NYU, I spent four years at a tech startup in Manhattan. Like Darren, I had a mentor high up in the company. Like Darren, I knew about making 200 calls a day, being hung up on five times and not even connecting the other 195. I also knew the high that you get from closing a deal, from calling up someone who doesn't know you from Adam, getting 45 minutes of their time, and at the end of it, they're swiping their credit card.
Like Darren, I got totally caught up in it. I distanced myself from my family, I was screening my mother's calls, I thought, OK! I've transcended race, I've transcended blackness! But no degree and no amount of money makes you immune to racism, and I finally realized that we weren't changing the world through what we were selling.
And is this when you started to write?
I began writing while still working full-time. It was an outlet for me. That book didn't work out, nor did the second. By my third attempt, I was back at my parents' house in Long Island and I also got a fellowship to the Rhode Island Writers Colony. For the first time, I was surrounded by other writers, particularly other Black writers, and they believed in me. Though I knew at this point that I was writing a book that felt true to me, to the people I wanted to serve, and to the state of the nation we lived in, these people opened my eyes to the tradition that I was writing in.
Do you really believe, as Darren does, that everything is sales?
Do you see your book as self-help?
Without a doubt, I believe that if someone reads this book, they can walk into an interview with an edge. There's humor in it, but I'm dead serious.
WHAT Virtual talk with Mateo Askaripour hosted by Book Revue in Huntington
WHEN 7 p.m. March 10
INFO Free; bookrevue.com