Matthew McGevna: On Writing Little Beasts
To celebrate the release of Little Beasts — the latest from our Kaylie Jones Books imprint — we’re pleased to feature a statement from author Matthew McGevna on how a real-life crime inspired his debut novel.
When I was a little boy my mother taught me to avoid teenagers. I grew up poor, in a working-class town on Long Island called Mastic Beach. With few local activities and even less money to participate in them, teenagers were almost entirely unavoidable. Nevertheless, I did my best to heed her warning. Whenever possible, if I saw a pack of teens hanging at the corner near the local deli, I would change direction or take to the nearby trails.
“That boy would have been graduating high school by now,” my mother would say as I’d be heading out the door to play. That boy’s age would expand, contract, double, triple; I became convinced that my mother didn’t actually know his precise age. That boy was John Pius. That boy, I can say now with certainty, would have been forty-seven, had he not been murdered one spring day in 1979 by four teenagers, who suffocated him by stuffing rocks down his throat. He was thirteen. A local search party found his body near his home in Smithtown, New York, approximately twenty-five miles west of where I grew up.
The Pius murder was a regional sensation. It would evolve into something of a ghost story. A cautionary tale mothers told their kids to keep them from venturing too far from home. I was raised on it. Lived by it. Acted irrationally sometimes because of it.
This became the impetus for my novel Little Beasts. I re-imagined the crime, perhaps as a way to capture the nuance of my own underprivileged upbringing—to tell the story of a voiceless people in a voiceless town.
Turnbull is both a modern and provincial town. Set in the early 1980s, the novel takes place while the country is beginning its transition into the technological age, where skilled labor is becoming more commonplace. But unskilled laborers, many of whom only hold a high school diploma, populate Turnbull. Desperate to convince themselves that their lives have value, the residents find solace in notions of patriotism or salvation through God. In what might be considered the third wave of anti-Soviet fervor in America, Turnbull has become enveloped by both fear and pride in the American dream.
This social backdrop sets fifteen-year-old David Westwood, a moody but intelligent teenager, on a collision course with eight-year-old Dallas Darwin. Within forty-eight hours of the novel’s opening, Dallas lies dead from suffocation after what starts out as a mild case of bullying escalates to murder.
The novel is not entirely without hope. In the wake of the murder, the families directly impacted seek ways to cope and move forward. Those moments of salvation come from unlikely sources. In the end, we are left to question the seemingly absurd fragility of life and how violence is often a rippling circle perpetrated by governments, communities, and school districts, eventually rippling outward toward the children. In the midst of this, there are those of us calling out for rescue. Little Beasts captures both the violent storm and the rescue.
MATTHEW McGEVNA was born and raised in Mastic Beach, Long Island. Born of Irish descent, he attended fiction and poetry workshops in Galway, Ireland, through the University of Arkansas Writing Program. He received his MFA in creative writing from Long Island University’s Southampton College in 2002. An award-winning poet, McGevna has also published numerous short stories in various publications, including Long Island Noir, Epiphany, and Confrontation. He currently lives in Center Moriches, New York, with his wife and two sons, Jackson and Dempsey. Little Beasts is his first novel.
Posted: Jul 21, 2015
Category: Akashic Insider | Tags: Akashic Insider, Matthew McGevna, Mastic Beach, Long Island, New York, Writing, Kaylie Jones, Kaylie Jones Books, Murder, author statement, 1980s, The Anger Meridian, Little Beasts, Turnbull, John Pius, bullying