by Lisa Yanaky
Lisa Selin Davis is the author of Belly (reviewed here), a work of fiction that follows the life of a man fresh out of jail and trying to adapt to a changing world. Davis was lovely enough to sit down and answer some questions from Book Brothel about her novel, the nature of nostalgia, and why you should be weary about letting her crash on your couch.
What inspired you to tell the story of Belly, a
despicable ex-con who still manages to induce a
lot of compassion in the reader?
Like Belly, I have plenty of moral outrage,
though it presents quite differently from his.
Instead, I wonder how people justify their lives, how
they make sense of driving SUVs, for instance, or
being unkind to people. I undertook a kind of
psychological investigation into someone I couldn’t,
or wouldn’t, understand in real life. Mostly I
wondered what it would be like to go through that
painful process of becoming humble, of having to
be a nobody. I didn’t decide on Belly as my
subject, it just sort of overtook me.
A lot of people would think that after a fairly
short-term jail sentence, it should be relatively
easy for a white-collar criminal to integrate
back into society, yet Belly struggles to adjust
throughout the novel. What made you choose a
four-year sentence as a time frame for the
ever-changing world instead of something longer?
I needed Belly to be away long enough for
enormous changes to occur, but short enough for it to be
realistic. And I like the idea of a four-year
period, after which he sort of graduates back into
society. His problem is not that he’s been away so
long, but that this society he’s rejoining is
Do you think Belly was genuinely trying to adapt
but had his good intentions misfire, or was he
too wrapped up in trying to get back his old life
to bother trying?
Belly suffers from what I call the shame cycle —
every time he misbehaves, he’s unable to admit
it, and this shame causes more misbehavior to try
and cover up what he’s already done. Along with
this behavior comes an over-inflated ego, a sense
of deprivation, a sense that he deserves a certain
reaction from folks, even though he knows inside
that he doesn’t. He throws tantrums, in a way,
because he’s so angry that he has to go about life
like everyone else now, after so many years of
being a local celebrity. And, yes, he’s lazy, too.
But there’s an element of protestation in there,
as well: He really does mourn the loss of his old
town. He may not be genuinely trying to adapt,
but he’s genuinely trying to participate.
Many authors rely on their protagonist being the
‘good guy’ in order to keep their readers rooting
for their characters and turning the pages, but
Belly stirs up mixed emotions in the reader, to
say the least. Why did you choose to write from
his point-of-view and not, say, from one of his
Well, that would be a very different, and I think
less interesting, book. I wanted to explore the
mind of the enemy, to empathize with him. I know
what it feels like to be a victim, but what does
it feel like to be a victimizer? That interested
Do you think Belly really did love his third
daughter the most, or was it a case of death
erasing any bad feelings?
He certainly believes that he loves his third
daughter the most, but I imagine if she hadn’t died,
he’d have found all sorts of reasons to judge
her, as well. He’s nostalgic for her the way he’s
nostalgic for his town — romanticizing it to the
point where he can’t remember the reality of it.
Belly spent his life surrounded by women – his
wife, his mistresses, his four daughters. What
was it about Belly that made it so hard for him
to understand any of them?
I hate to keep sounding so pop psychology-ish,
but I really think that Belly’s a man who doesn’t
feel deserving of love. He wants everyone to
abandon him so he can have full access to his rage.
All but one of his daughters have left him by the
end, really, so he doesn’t have to understand
them, doesn’t have to empathize himself. But with
Nora, he’s forced to reevaluate. She’s tough with
him, but loving — probably the way he wanted to be
as a parent, if he’d had more control, more
compassion. Compassion is something he can’t
understand, since he doesn’t feel it for himself. Oops,
more therapy speak.
What was behind the moment when you thought,
Yes, I have to tell Belly’s story, and
picked up a pen/started typing? Did you spend a
lot of time mulling it over, or did you get right
down to work?
I was staying with a childhood friend — and I
often get story ideas when I’m staying with folks,
and have a window into their lives (beware of
having me crash on your couch) — who was having a
kind of role reversal with her dad, taking care of
him even though he was only in his 50s. I just
started writing something, a few notes, and then I
wrote something separate, with Maybelline. I had
no idea what I was doing, just that it was really
pouring out. Then I had all these disparate
pieces — many of which were scrapped — and I fit
some together. But the only time I truly felt like I
was onto something was when I wrote the part
where Belly cries on his daughter’s shoulder. I was
sitting — gulp — in an overly air conditioned
Starbuck in Tempe, Arizona (working on being a
cliché), and I felt this burn in my solar plexus,
like I was going to cry myself, I felt so terrible
for him. There was no mulling — I was just
feeling my way around in the dark, and there’s no time
for mulling in the dark.
What was the writing process like for you? Do you
think your background in journalism and teaching
made writing a novel less intimidating, or does
it just cause you to overanalyze everything?
I didn’t have a background in journalism or
teaching when I started. Like Belly, I’ve had to
completely reinvent myself in the past few years. I
worked in the film industry for 8 years — I made
Steve’s notebooks and crayons and such on the show
Blue’s Clues for years — and left because I
wanted to write. Actually, once I got this inkling of
a story, I decided to apply to graduate school,
and I went off to get my MFA knowing that I wanted
to write about Belly.
I’d known for years that I wanted to do
journalism, but I was so intimidated by the process of
pitching articles — it just seemed like a wall
impossible to surmount. But then, the same way Belly
happened, I found my first article
subject: there was an old Georgian house in Tempe
that was still standing, despite the fact that
everything around it has been razed and replaced
with strip malls (yes, there’s an urban planning
theme in everything). The house belonged to a
fortune teller, Mrs. Rita (made famous in the Gin
Blossoms song), and I pitched a piece on the house. I
had no idea what I was doing — I pitched it to
ten places, and one lovely woman took a chance on
me. That was April, 2003. Then I had one clip,
and when I moved back to New York, in August of
that year, I set about trying to be a journalist. I
just wrote my first piece for the New York Times!
As a visiting professor of creative writing at
Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, what’s the most
important thing you try to impart to your
Empathy, empathy, empathy. They bypass so much —
they don’t stay in the scene, they don’t really
think, how would this feel? They don’t, as my old
teacher Ron Carlson says, stay and pool in the
moment. That’s what I want from them — it’s a
reach for authenticity. I can’t remember who said
this, but I find it helpful to pass it on — “Did it
really happen? No. Is it true? Yes.”
What authors have inspired you in your writing?
Well, I discovered a few writers as a young
teenager that really electrified me. One, of course,
was Alice Munro. My folks had a New Yorker
subscription, and I always just read the cartoons until
one week I happened upon a story by Deborah
Eisenberg called “What it was like seeing Chris.” It
was about a young girl my age, and I didn’t
exactly know what happened in it, but it did something
to me, the same way Alice Munro’s “How I Met My
Husband” did. I’m not sure it made me want to
write, but it certainly made me want to read, to be
inside their words and their worlds. It took me a
long time to appreciate old Hem, but I do now,
and I love the writers I think of as his and
Fitzgerald’s offspring — Ron Carlson, Richard Ford:
macho sensitive writers.
What have you been reading lately?
Oh, I’m a broken record — I just read the new
Alice Munro, and I’m so pleased to find that she’s
still got it. I cried on the subway reading one
of the stories. I just read Animal Farm, as I’d
never read it in High School, and I read part of
Jonathan Cott’s book on losing his memory through
electro-shock therapy. Fascinating. My plan is to
take another look at Chekhov over the summer.
What’s up next for you?
I’m taking the month of August off to work on a
second book, which is a big, sprawling mess at
this point, but I’m very interested in the new
characters. It’s set in Phoenix, which truly
fascinates me — I love it and hate it. What I really hope
to do is write a non-fiction book or two, but I’m
not quite ready. Almost. So far, ideas seem to
have presented themselves, called my attention to
them and stated that they needed to be written.