We talk to Matthew Di Paoli – whose work appeared in issue thirty-nine of Neon – about quicksand, inspiration and stories.
I loved the idea behind your story “Quicksand”. Can you remember where this story came from, or what inspired it?
It’s funny that you ask that because usually my response would be something opaque — like it came from the experience of fishing with my grandfather combined with the moment before a car crash and also I was eating raspberry jelly, which is probably true for one of my stories, but with “Quicksand” I remember the exact inspiration.
I was listening to a Radiolab dealing with quicksand and why it no longer captures our imagination the way it once did. I mean if you think about it, it’s totally true. Quicksand used to be in everything, every B-movie, every adventure novel. So I set out to write a modern story in which quicksand could be a sort of antagonist again, and for me it had to be absurdist.
There is indeed something fantastic and oddly compelling about quicksand – it’s certainly a well-known feature of children’s games and stories. Is it used here as a metaphor? Do you think it matters whether the events described in a story are “real” or not?
I’ve always been fascinated by it, particularly as a kid. Certainly there’s something dangerous but also alluring about it. There are people who have these fetishes with quicksand. They have entire communities online. That’s intriguing to me. They call themselves sinkers, and I think that sort of obsession comes from being either afraid or captivated as a child. It’s a metaphor only in that the narrator is being sort of sucked down by life, and then he’s literally ensnared. Of course he’s too polite to get himself help, which is probably his problem in everyday life. In my mind it’s real. It’s more fun if it’s real. Just the idea that there’s a pit of quicksand somewhere on the Upper West Side of Manhattan makes me giggle.
I felt that there was a slight tonal shift over the course of the story. As the narrator sank deeper and deeper the tone became gradually darker, more serious. Did you know how the story was going to end when you started writing? Do you usually?
I absolutely did not know how the story was going to end. I actually wrote Quicksand in one sitting over the course of about two hours in a coffee shop. I think that’s the most cliché writer thing I’ve ever said. I started with the idea that this perfectly nice guy gets caught in quicksand and that no-one seems to want to help him. As I began writing I realized that the passing of time could be marked by his sinking, and that was perfect because the lower he sank, the more the world changed. He saw the world differently, and he began to confront his own mortality, so it definitely became grimmer. I don’t generally know exactly where a story will end up. I like to write that way because it’s fun to be surprised, and if you’re too married to how a story ends your characters might not develop organically. You end up with a story that’s stillborn, as Hitchcock used to say.
You mention in your biography that you’re currently releasing a novel titled Killstanbul. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Sure, so Killstanbul is a book that I wrote shortly after getting my MFA. It’s a pulpy absurdist thriller that follows an Icelandic contract killer, Carolus, on his adventures through Europe and looks back at how he became a hired gun. The Yule Lads – small Santa Claus-like creatures that are part of Icelandic holiday folklore – are his guides. It’s a pretty weird, fun read. I’m really excited to be publishing it with El Balazo Books in March.
What, in your opinion, makes a good short story?
Engagement. I think the reader has to feel something. I think whether it’s a connection to your voice or your narrator or your protagonist, the reader needs to experience that personal investment. I also don’t discount the beauty of language. I’m sick of hearing that the writing was bad, but it was a good story. No it wasn’t. The writing is the story. It’s a written story! It’s like saying the direction and acting were bad, but it was a good movie. Everything has to come together for something to be good, and it has to transcend the medium, jump off the page for it to approach greatness.
What is the best way for readers to find more about your work, or keep up with what you are writing?
To find more about my work you can check out matthewdipaoli.com or follow me on twitter @matthewdipaoli. I’m always announcing anything new I write or that’s coming up on those sites. Also, when Killstanbul comes out that will be on Amazon and at elbalazomedia.com.
Matthew Di Paoli obtained his MFA at Columbia University for fiction. He has been published in Black Denim Lit, Carte Blanche, Blue Penny Quarterly, Poydras Review, Pithead Chapel, Gigantic, Fiction Week Literary Review, Newport Review, and Post Road literary magazines among others. Currently, he is releasing his novel, Killstanbul, with El Balazo Media.