Lisa Selin DavisLisa Selin Davis, 33, is a freelance writer and teacher of creative writing at the Pratt Institute. Her first novel Belly entered bookstores on July 1. Blending Davis’ long held interests in urban planning and environmental psychology with an insightful eye for the seedy, seamier side of life, Belly chronicles the adventures of hard-living Belly O’Reilly as he returns to an upstate New York home he no longer knows and tries to rebuild his life after four years in the pen.

This coming Wednesday, July 27, Lisa will have a reading at BookCourt in Brooklyn (163 Court St, (718) 875-3677) at 7pm.

How's your day been?
Sun-drenched. That Brooklyn ocean sure does smell like a lot of dead fish. You?

I’ve been getting sick on sour milk. When was the last time you got sick? I mean like bent over the toilet sick.
I very rarely drink alcohol, so I'm not often bent over the toilet. But sour milk is another story. Is it true? You drank sour milk? Or you accidentally downed an entire fifth of whiskey?

No, sour milk, really. It was so hot it all went down in one swallow before I even realized it. So you hardly drink?
Yes. I am a non-drinker. Maybe four times a year. It's good not to drink -- it makes you exotic in this town. Or else people think I'm in AA.

But the main character in your new book, Belly, he knows how to toss back a few, no?
Yes, Belly loves his beer, and his whiskey. I had to do some research since I'm not very well-versed in alcohol. I was dating this 25-year old alcoholic widower at the time, and we went out and tried everything from the well drinks to the top shelf. That was actually the last time I got the kind of sick you're talking about.

That wasn’t just an excuse to get drunk and justify it?
I don't need an excuse to get drunk, I don't think. I need an excuse to stay sober, though. More and more I'm interested in having a boring life, and saving the drama for pen and paper.

Had a lot of drama in your life?
I've had plenty in my own mind. I've been thinking a lot about this lately -- how to continue to have adventures, but stave off the melodrama.

Little, Brown markets Belly as “a tender, wise and funny story of fatherhood and second chances.” When you think about what the book is about, does it differ at all from the marketing pitch?
It’s about that, yes, but for me, the book is also a love story between a man and a town, and it grew out of my studies in urban planning and environmental psychology, two graduate degrees I didn't finish.

The book grew out of your studies in urban planning and environmental psychology? How so?
I have so much moral outrage. I walk around all day seeing people who drive SUVs and purchase pure bred dogs and I think "How can anyone think like that." I decided to answer the question.

By writing about an ex-con womanizer seeking redemption?
Well, it was also an exercise in empathy: I felt everything this 59-year old man did -- I felt his loose skin and his rotting liver, his primeval urge to hump young women, his justification for driving an SUV and voting Republican or not voting at all. And what Belly goes through -- this longing for the town that once was and never will be again -- is so relevant. I mean, say goodbye to Brooklyn as we know it.

If you drive along I-95, you see these carcasses of cities, all these disastrous urban renewal projects that tore out the architectural heart of cities -- "slum clearance" -- and replaced them with these uniformly ugly modernist towers, what I call the architecture of intolerance. And that's what I think they're doing to Brooklyn: making it look like Anywhere, USA.

Okay, so let me get this straight… you're a "good girl" woman who hardly drinks, you live in NYC and you're writing about a guy who’s just out of prison, lives hard and lives upstate. Research only goes so far. Where did the material come from?
I guess it's rare these days to write something so un-autobiographical. I'm glad to have done it -- most folks say if it weren't for my name, they wouldn't have known the book was written by a woman.

I honestly think that there's great potential in writing from your enemy's point of view, sinking yourself into the mind of someone totally outside your experience. It's just so hard to understand another human being -- anyone. I met a very wise woman at a party last night, who said we can only know what someone else thinks from what they tell us, and even then, we can't begin to comprehend, not really. So I made it up.

You made it up. Nowhere in the Belly lies Lisa?
Well, according to a couple of my blurbers, there's a little bit of Belly in all of us. That terrifies some folks. No one wants to admit that he or she has such violent grumblings.

Nothing at all autobiographical?
There's plenty that's autobiographical -- Belly's fear of his own feelings -- I have that. And I lived in Saratoga until I was 5 years old, and my father still lives there (he plays tenor banjo in the house band at the racetrack), and no matter where I lived -- Georgia, California, Massachusetts -- I always missed that town.

The town seemed so perfect to me as a kid -- not just because it was beautiful, but because its beauty was faded. But the physical layout of the town -- the narrow streets and shallow front lawns and the houses close to one another on the street -- made for instant community, and I never have had that anywhere else. Plus, there were a zillion hippies around, like my folks, and all the dirty hippie kids got to run around together on those shallow lawns and play Frisbee in the narrow streets.

A bygone era?
Yes, a bygone era. I don't think it's so bad that Saratoga's all fixed up. The streets look lovely, and I bet if I left my dirt bike in front of the building that was BB's Pizza when I was a kid, it wouldn't get stolen now (I loved that dirt bike).

Did anyone you know serve as a real life inspiration for the character of Belly?
A girlfriend of mine found herself caretaking for her father after he went to prison, and I was fascinated by their role-reversal, and by his situation. I really wondered how a person would navigate that steep trajectory, from a somebody to a nobody in a short period of time.

I empathize with Belly, not in terms of his priniciples -- I'm no Republican, and I honestly cannot understand what could possibly be wrong with being gay -- but because he's so ashamed of himself, and he can't break the shame cycle. I empathize with him emotionally, I guess.

What's the shame cycle?
The shame cycle is where you're so ashamed of you're behavior, and so sure that you're going to be rejected because of it, that you have to reject people preemptively. So you act like a jerk, and shame yourself more.

And reject people even more?

Anything autobiographical in that?
Oh my lord, that is so autobiographical. And I have certainly wished I behaved differently on many occasions. Almost every occasion, actually. I am the person that says the thing that everyone else is thinking but not saying. Only recently did it occur to me that maybe they weren't saying it for a reason.

And what's that reason?
Now, that is a good question. Is it fear? I used to think so, and I used to think that was a bad reason for not doing something. Then I thought it had something to do with being polite, and that's never interested me much, either. But lately I think it's that not everyone feels the need to express their opinions all the time, or they wait for an appropriate time and do it then. I think maybe they call this acting like an adult, but I missed that class or something.

Is this at all related to why you write?
There are so many reasons why I write. I write because I always want to learn, and because I need to un-jumble the mess that's in my head. I had a babysitter who told me that if you're afraid, and you write it down , the fear will dissipate. It sounds trite, but I think that sort of started the whole mess.

Usually when I ask people why they became writers, they say something about getting a good grade or winning a prize. Yes, that means they're good at it, but it also means they're seeking approval. But who isn't? We write to be loved.

So do you think a lot of writers are insecure?
I know lots of cocky writers, but isn't that sort of the same thing? I suppose if you do it long enough, you become inured to the process, and you worry less about what others think and more about creating something you're proud of. Next week, I'm going to stop worrying about what people think of me. I just penciled it in.

Speaking of worrying about what others think, how do you respond to negative reviews? There's an unflattering one on
I know. I think it called me a man-hater. After that, I had to stop looking at anything anyone said about the book, good or bad. I was shocked, but that's only because I didn't realize that publishing meant giving birth to something you've loved and labored over, and submitting it to the public to judge.

Somehow I didn't notice the connection between the publishing and public worlds. Oops. Now, I got it.

The age of the Internet, eh? Instant mortification.
I guess it's good that the guy is so passionate about it. Reviewing is sort of bizarre to me – and on the Internet so many reviews are unsigned. Someone could read it and love it, someone else could detest it, but either way it will come off as the institution's view. I feel pretty proud of the book myself, so I'll just try to remember that when folks are calling me a man-hater.

How's Belly doing? It came out earlier this month...
It hasn't quite made it to the best sellers list yet, but it's stumbling along happily. It got selected for the First Fiction tour, so I'll be hitting the road with three other first-time novelists in the fall. That should give it a healthy boost.

What's the First Fiction tour?
It's a tour of first-time novelists, who wouldn't be particulary visible on their own, but in a group can garner some attention. It's organized by Cindy Dach, who owns a bookstore called Changing Hands. We got to seven cities and read at indepenent bookstores, and they sell cheap beer. Is it the novelists or the cheap beer that draws the crowds?

Probably the cheap beer.
Don't say it! It is, of course, impossible for me to understand preferring cheap beer to books, since I don't like the stuff. I'd like to like it, but I don't.

You worked in film for a number of years. How were you able to make the transition from that to writing?
It’s really hard to go from film to anything else, or else it's hard within the film world. I made props for Blue's Clues and I kept telling the people at Blue's Clues that I could write, and they just couldn't see me with a pen and paper-- only with a hot glue gun and an economy-sized bottle of glitter.

But I’ve always been a writer. I tried to study writing in college, but my advisor said I wasn't a writer. How can you say that to a 17-year old? And how can you know? It took me about 10 years to work up the courage to really try, and that's only because my brother suggested to me that, since I wanted to be a writer and not an urban planner, that I stop working on my urban planning degree and actually try writing. He's wise that way.

And so you followed his advice…
I went to a writing conference in Saratoga. They only had two workshops -- advanced and intermediate -- and I signed up for the latter, assuming I couldn't get in to the other. But the intermediate was more like remedial, and there were folks who couldn't write a complete sentence. I worried I was that horrible.

One day I came out of class and my teacher was sitting there with his leg up on a bench, smoking -- it was very much a Marlboro man scene -- and he said, "You're good, Davis." I knew I was supposed to just sort of salute him and walk on, but instead, I ran up to him and said, "Really, you think so, because I was wondering if I was as bad as a few of those folks and if not I was thinking of going to grad school and could you tell me what the good schools are and write me a recommendation?" I'm sure he regretted his little nod to me.

Was that a defining moment?
The defining moment was later that week, when I wrote the first few sentences of Belly.

How so?
Well, I knew I was on to something. I knew I was interested. I didn't know where it would lead, but I could tell it was worth pursuing.

So you had to go back home to become a writer...
Yeah, I guess I had to stop in there, then hibernate in the middle of the desert for two years. Then I got to come back to New York, in full butterfy mode.

You also teach writing. How did that come about?
I taught out in Arizona, at a community college. My students were Mormons and Mexicans. When I came back to New York I got a book deal, and I wormed my way into Pratt, where I teach with some of New York's greatest writers, and coolest people. Now I realize what great students Mormons are. They always do their homework.

Any new books or projects on the horizon?
My next book is about Phoenix, and about the generification of America, and about the architecture of intolerance...I hope. I was just thinking how sad it is to drive cross-country on the interstates now, with the same restaurants at every rest stop. I love regional differences, the way I love regional accents. I want that to exist, not just in commerce, or in food, but in architecture. But in general, the more America looks the same, the more Americans crave that sameness. That's why people travel 2000 miles to eat at Applebee's in the middle of New York City.

I'm 309 pages into this next novel, but I've been working on a series of articles around this subject, and now I'm thinking of doing a non-fiction book, as well. Can you have a novel and a non-fiction book with the same title? Maybe a two-volume set?