Cold-Calling Strangers Taught Mateo Askaripour How to Be a Writer

SELLER’S MARKET In the course of a 30-minute phone interview, Mateo Askaripour dropped my name — actually, my nickname — six times: “Liz, I don’t have an M.F.A.” and “To go back to answering your question directly, Liz,” and so forth. The effect was disarming, not smarmy. But I wasn’t surprised to learn that Askaripour worked in sales before he published his debut novel, “Black Buck,” which appeared at No. 15 on last week’s hardcover fiction list. Written as a self-help manual, it tells the story of a Starbucks barista who gets recruited by a fictional tech start-up where he is the only Black employee.

Askaripour said his experience making 200 cold calls a day gave him “an almost abnormal amount of stamina to persevere” as an author. He explained, “You’re calling Charles halfway across the country who doesn’t know you from Adam, and it’s your aim to get him on the phone, keep him on the phone and either get him to buy your product or set more time for a longer conversation later.” He declined to name his former employer, but said, “I was there for about four years. I started out as an intern, Liz.”

Before “Black Buck,” Askaripour wrote two books he wasn’t able to sell. In November 2018, he was living at his parents’ house on Long Island, questioning his decision to “pivot from one career to another,” when he read “On Writing,” by Stephen King. The book spoke to him in ways other compendiums of literary guidance had not. He said, “I tried writing in a coffee shop. I tried writing in the morning. I tried writing in the evening. I tried writing with classical music. It didn’t work.” Askaripour was inspired by King’s advice to, as he puts it, “get characters into various scenarios and then figure out, in the course of a couple hundred pages, how to get them out or not.”

Once he had a complete draft, Askaripour found pleasure in one of the most tedious steps in the publishing process: querying agents. He said, “I loved being able to put a pitch together. I knew it needed to have energy. I knew that being able to go from one rejection to another without losing enthusiasm was important.”

Askaripour described best-sellerdom as “surreal,” an experience he will “understand the gravity of only in hindsight.” As for those unpublished manuscripts, he said, “Even though sometimes I still discuss them as failures, they were really a training ground for me learning how to write.”

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