An ex-talent agent's journey from Kashmir to Hollywood (and 32 addresses along the way)


Twenty years ago Priyanka Mattoo decided to leave Michigan for California. At the time, she faced two dilemmas: She was in love with someone who didn’t reciprocate her feelings and she had just graduated from law school but no longer wished to practice law. So Mattoo decided to “tag along” with a friend to Los Angeles.

“L.A. has made me into who I am,” Mattoo said during a Zoom call from her home. “A close friends’ circle, spending every night at a different party, building a family, diving into the food scene — whatever I wanted was available to me here without the churn and expense that other cities [at the time] had.”

A former talent agent at UTA and WME, Mattoo once represented emerging comedy writers and actors while acclimating to the “culture” of walking red carpets and attending afterparties.

The story of why Mattoo quit her job as an agent to pursue a career in writing has as many twists and turns as her literary debut, the memoir “Bird Milk & Mosquito Bones”a Kashmiri phrase meaning something “so rare and precious that the listener should question its existence.”

“Bird Milk & Mosquito Bones,” out Tuesday, chronicles Mattoo’s journey across five countries and 32 homes. Mattoo opens with her house in her native Kashmir being destroyed. She and her family split time between India and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, due to the ongoing Kashmir insurgency. One night in Riyadh, 12-year-old Mattoo and her family received news from relatives in Kashmir that their newly built house had been burned down by militants.

They never returned to their homeland. Instead, they had “stints” in England, Saudi Arabia and New York before settling down in Ann Arbor, Mich., where Mattoo spent her adolescence as well as her college and law school years. From there, she explores less brutal parts of memory lane. Giving up the parental “collective chosen path” of a premed track at the University of Michigan to study abroad for a year in Italy and later pursue a law degree, for instance. Falling in love with Rodney Rothman, the filmmaker of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Transitioning from talent agent to producer (she was Jack Black’s partner at their production company, Electric Dynamite) to writer.

In her memoir, Mattoo recalls a former boss telling her she looked “miserable” at work. To Mattoo, “making her clients’ dreams come true” was her favorite part of the job (and the only part that “worked” for her). Growing up in a family of ambitious women who prioritized their education, the newfound sexism she faced in Hollywood was an unwelcome surprise. The traumatizing experiences included male partners grabbing her by the shoulders to make her stand up straighter. She once was lured into a meeting with a contractor who she writes was more interested in her body than her talents. Ultimately, Mattoo called it quits. Seeking a more creative outlet, she left WME to work in production.

But as someone who feeds on resilience, she regrets none of it.

“Being in the middle of the entertainment industry helped me understand how talent was shepherded through the machine,” Mattoo said. “I learned how to preserve my clients’ voices, and this artist-adjacent creative mind-set got baked into me so I had a foundation of what my own career could become.”

Although Mattoo eventually decided she’d had enough with the agency life, she still has “a foot” in Hollywood. In 2018, she made a short film, “The Homestay,” which she is working on adapting into a feature with Likely Story, the production company behind “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Mattoo is also the founder of Earios, the first all-female podcast network, through which she and TV writer Camilla Blackett co-hosted a beauty and wellness podcast called “Foxy Browns” during the COVID-19 pandemic. And after “selling a bunch of TV pilots” in the last few years, Mattoo is currently writing “Harbinder,” a detective procedural for CBS about an Indian American woman.

But Mattoo’s path as a memoirist was something that took soul-searching. She was inspired by “fresh, young [South Asian] voices” who write about “more than just their cultural burdens.” Her role models included Pakistani American singer Ali Sethi, Indian American writer and organizer Sarah Thankam Mathews and L.A.-based, award-winning author Neel Patel. But only after working as an agent (and living in L.A.) did Mattoo finally see herself as a fresh voice with stories to tell. During the pandemic, she started writing essays about parenting, Hollywood and her cultural identity for outlets including the New Yorker, the New York Times and Vulture. Slowly but surely, these essays grew into a memoir.

“I talk about it with a lot of young people. My career path has been extremely unusual,” Mattoo said. “But the last thing I want people to take away from it is that it has been a series of failures; without the five or six turns I made, I doubt I’d be the writer I am today — my goal was always to continue to do something until it didn’t feel right.”

Writing — so far — feels right. And thankfully, she has another essay collection from Knopf on its way.



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