Matthew Di Paoli On His Debut Novel 'Killstanbul': "It Started With a Feeling"
If you’re like me and you have a taste for the unusual, then Matthew Di Paoli’s Killstanbul is an absolute must-read. A quirky psychological thriller by a native New Yorker, Di Paoli’s book centers around an assassin named Carolus from Reykjavik, Iceland. He is adept in his field of murder but despite his esoteric day job, Carolus is a relatable character that falls in love too easily. Like a novelization of a Tarantino film, Di Paoli’s Killstanbul will enthrall as well as entertain.
We spoke to author Matthew Di Paoli about his first novel and how his life experiences have led to the creation of this unique piece of fiction:
What was your idea behind Killstanbul?
Killstanbul started with a feeling. I wanted the entire book to reflect the tone and the landscape of Iceland — something dark, mystical, something that appeared frozen over but was actually volcanic. That’s how I developed Carolus, as a sort of embodiment of Iceland itself. I also felt like it was such a cool setting for a [Quentin] Tarantino-esque crime story. Something believably absurd, if that makes sense. Then I expanded the story to the places in Europe I’d been to, because I wanted to make it like a hitman’s travel log as well — Prague, Greece, and Istanbul, all of which had their own national personalities.
What do you want the audience to walk away with after reading your novel?
I’d like the audience to walk away feeling like they miss the characters. I want them to love Carolus but feel conflicted about him, too. He’s a killer. That was the challenge all along: make a cuddly killer. I’m very happy when people say they wanted more. That’s definitely a compliment to me. It’s the same sensation I want when I leave a room. I want people to feel a little sad and a little weird about the whole experience.
Your novel revolves heavily around old Icelandic folklores. Why did you decide to incorporate these beliefs specifically throughout? What role does religion play in this novel?
Well when I was in Iceland, I went to see the Northern Lights as any tourist worth his salt does. We took about an hour-long bus ride outside Reykjavik to the National Park, which had some crazy name that sounded like Snuffleupagus. That’s what we were calling it. The conditions were perfect. Clear, cold. I remember the tour guide telling us we were standing on a glacier.
And we waited and waited, and the sky was beautiful. I’d never seen so many stars growing up in New York City, but the Northern Lights never appeared. Obviously everyone was disappointed. We all went back into the bus. No refund. So the tour guide tried to cheer us up by telling us about the elves and Yule Lads of Iceland, because it was right before New Year’s. The stories were really strange and lovely, and the best part was that she said if you gave a local a few drinks, they would totally admit to believing in them! It was absolutely true, and I was so delighted by that fact and the idea of this living lore that I had to write about it.
As far as religion, I think it’s not only unavoidable in literature but also necessary. It’s the impetus for thousands of decisions every day. It’s this enormous, sometime polarizing force in the world whether you believe or not. To me theology is another form of myth or lore, and that fascinates me. I always incorporate religion into my writing.
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As a man, Carolus has many unique relationships with different women, what do the women symbolize for Carolus?
Well at the simplest level purity, right? I mean he’s this sort of brutish murderer in his day job, but he’s not exactly James Bond. He doesn’t have that polish to him. He ends up falling in love way too much, and things get complicated and people get hurt, including him. His sister is the only one who really gets him, yet she doesn’t know the most important thing about him. His love interests all get these tiny sections of him, and there’s a point in the book in which he explains his philosophy on relationships—that each one takes a section of his life like a puzzle piece, and if you put them all together you’d have one complete Corolus. Women are Carolus’s salvation that he doesn’t believe he deserves.
What is the psychological state of Carolus in the beginning of the novel compared to the ending? Does killing bring a sense of clarity to him?
That’s an interesting question. In one sense, yes, killing is this thing he knows really well, and it’s almost automatic to him. Everything else in his life is messy. But I think the book shows a bit of his unraveling. I think in the beginning you see his life pretty much just the way he’s envisioned it, and by the end he starts breaking all the rules, and he’s running out of time, making mistakes. He’s a mess by the end, on the brink of disaster. I shouldn’t say any more. Spoiler alert!
This is your first novel. What advice would you give an aspiring author?
Edit your brains out. Whenever you think you’re done, you’re not. Find a good workshop or a writing partner to exchange work with. Maybe that part is obvious. The other aspect is patience. That’s something I don’t particularly have in spades! It takes a long time to write something and a long time to edit it properly, and it’ll usually take even longer for someone to read it and finally publish it. Publishing is one of the only processes that seems to have gotten slower in the digital age! It can be infuriating, but just try to hang on and see the end game. The day that El Balazo [his publisher] threw me that book party was one of the best days of my life.
Learn more about Di Paoli's work at his official website.