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Novelist Matthew McGevna revisits a Long Island murder in 'Little Beasts'

Author Matthew McGevna on a South Shore beach.

Author Matthew McGevna on a South Shore beach. His novel, "Little Beasts," fictionalizes the real-life killing of 13-year-old John Pius on Long Island in 1979. Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

In his debut novel, "Little Beasts" (Kaylie Jones/Akashic Books, $15.95 paper), Long Island native Matthew McGevna returns to an infamous crime that haunted his 1980s childhood. Reimagining the location and circumstances, McGevna creates a chilling story of poverty and violence based in his own hardscrabble hometown. He discussed the book in a recent phone interview.

In 1979, 13-year-old John Pius was found dead behind Dogwood Elementary School in Smithtown, rocks stuffed down his throat. Four teenagers were accused of the murder. Why has this story remained important to you?

I grew up on this story. I would leave the house to go to the deli and my mother would always say, "If you see teenagers, go the other way. That boy would've been 18 if he were alive today." The age would always change, but the idea was the same. She probably didn't mean to terrify me, but she did. If I saw teens I would turn around and take a trail home through the woods. The story had a really profound impact on how I literally walked down the street, and I wasn't the only one. A lot of parents in the community raised their kids on that story. It was my earliest impression of the danger of the world.

Although you don't expressly say it, you relocate the murder to your own hometown of Shirley and the Mastics. Why?

I wanted to write about poverty. In so doing, I thought about my own upbringing and childhood -- transplanting this crime was a way in. Poverty is not just about money or keeping the lights on. It is about the deprivation of self-worth, of opportunities. Being poor does violence to your self-worth, and I wanted to write a story about that intersection of violence and poverty.

David, the killer, is such a complex character. Did you base him on the real killer?

Not at all. He's actually based on me; I split myself in two in the novel. There's a bit of me in David, and a bit of me in the boy he kills. At that age it is very hard to see the way out of any situation because you are so emotionally volatile. I really took it to heart when my high school sweetheart dumped me, and I wanted to capture that sense of how crushing it can be when you are rejected by the person you feel is your muse and reason for being. I wanted readers to feel compassion for a teen boy who feels isolated and where every possible next move on this chessboard results in a checkmate. He perceives the outside world to be against him and it leads to tragic circumstances.

Your novel really gets deep into the unsettlingly dark world of children. The characters in your book are in turns fiercely loyal and devastatingly brutal, and chillingly real.

Children live in an entire political and socio-economic world that is known only to them. Kids operate under a complete different constitution than adults. They don't have the ability to grasp consequences. That's why my mother understood that teenagers should be avoided -- they really can be frightening. But great, too, of course!

When you were a kid, did you want to be a writer?

In grade school I would often come home and write a story where I would make right in fiction what went wrong in the day. My high school creative writing teacher at William Floyd [High School], Mrs. Gaspari, was the first person -- outside of my family and friends -- who believed in me. She created an amazing space to allow teenagers to get whatever crazy stuff we had in our head out on the page without judgment. She let us express ourselves in the way we needed.

How did you start working on the novel?

I'd studied under the writer Kaylie Jones at Southampton College as an undergrad and pursued my MFA there in drama. A few years later, when I was 27, my father died of alcoholism and I wrote a 500-page novel, trying to make sense of things. Kaylie invited me to revise the novel in a writers workshop she ran out of her apartment on the Upper East Side, and I cut the book in half. During this time, she started her own imprint at Akashic and invited me to publish with her. She was my teacher, mentor and then editor.

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