'Broken People' Author Sam Lansky Discusses Intimacy, Loneliness In Gay Community
NOEL KING, HOST:
If someone promised they could fix everything about you - your anxiety, your insecurity, your sadness - in three days, would you accept? In Sam Lansky's new novel "Broken People," the main character says yes - yes to self-help, to New Age meditation and yes to a possibly shady shaman for hire. The yes leads him on a winding, funny journey through Los Angeles and through his mind. In the novel, Lansky looks at what it means for a gay man to struggle with body image, loneliness and addiction, all things that Sam Lansky is also familiar with.
SAM LANSKY: I would say that I poured a lot of myself into this character and this book. I think that inviting the reader to draw comparisons between myself as the author and Sam as the protagonist of this book felt like a way to get at one of the big ideas that I was really interested in writing about, which was the way our own tendency to tell stories about ourselves can be both a really freeing and empowering thing and also a self-limiting thing.
KING: The story that Sam the character tells himself that is self-limiting is that he's not good. He doesn't like himself. He always feels out of place. He's convinced that other people don't like him. He's ultimately a very lonely character.
LANSKY: You know, I had the experience with writing my first book, which was a memoir called "The Gilded Razor," that I thought I was writing that book and had the opportunity to write that book in the first place because my story was really singular, like, it was really unique. You know, I'd had these colorful teenage years and had these high school misadventures being sort of a terror, running around New York. And when the book came out, the great privilege that I had was getting to hear from readers who said, you know, even if the details weren't the same, this is how I felt. I identify with this - particularly other people in recovery.
So with this book, I approached it with what I had learned from that first experience, which was that writing in a fair amount of detail about specific emotional states - feeling out of place, feeling not enough, feeling insecure - that I think so many of us have experienced or continue to experience felt like an opportunity to reach people and, hopefully, provide them with the solace of knowing that they are not alone.
KING: It does make me wonder, Sam, who your us is. Is it millennials? This is a very millennial book. Is it gay men? Is it young gay men? Talk about who's the us in your mind.
LANSKY: You know, my hope is that there's a kind of universal reach to that sense of us that so many people, regardless of your identity, can connect to the feeling of not feeling like enough.
KING: Is that why the character Sam - at the heart of his self-hatred, in a lot of ways, is his weight, is something that people might think, well, that's such a trifle. Why does this guy feel so bad about himself because he's carrying a couple extra pounds? Why make this concern with his weight so central to Sam's identity and self-hatred?
LANSKY: Part of my story is I got sober when I was really young. I got sober when I was 19 after a really turbulent chapter as a teenager. And part of my journey through recovery that I think anyone who's dealing with any kind of mental health challenges experiences is you sort of learn a new language, right? You develop a vocabulary, whether it's the vocabulary of self-help culture or of therapy or of 12-step recovery.
A lot of that skipped over the body. It took me eight or nine years into my recovery until I was able to take a step back and realize all of these things that had been manifesting. All of these, you know, self-destructive patterns, these sort of passive modes of self-harm were actually stemming from this place of, like, I don't know what I'm doing in this body. Like, I feel really uncomfortable in this. I feel a sense of really deep kind of dysphoric, like, what am I doing in this?
You know, there's a joke in the book where Sam, you know, asks a friend, why did I have to be born in a body? Why couldn't I have been born into, you know, a haunted suit of armor or...
KING: Yeah (laughter).
LANSKY: ...Like, a cursed piece of jewelry that haunts a rich family for generations? And I've had that thought so many times, that, you know, I've been really uncomfortable sort of being embodied. And that is a vocabulary that was not the one I learned.
KING: There's a central proposition in this book, right? Sam learns about a shaman who claims that he can fix what's wrong with people in three days, and Sam is skeptical. He still decides that he's going to go for it. You have obviously done a lot of work, and you've been in recovery for a lot of years. And anyone who's been in recovery will tell you it's a daily process. It's not easy. And so I am struck that your character would accept the kind of help that says, give me three days and I can make it all better. It's surprising.
LANSKY: You know, I think that it's really natural and really human to want a kind of radical change, you know, or to want to expedite growth in some way. And I think it's a really tantalizing proposition, you know, and one that I was really curious about. Without spoiling anything, you know, I think one of the central themes of the book is this narrative of brokenness or of needing to be fixed and the ways in which that is such a slippery slope and can be so illusory and really is a self-fulfilling proposition, you know, and challenging the idea, which I think our culture profits from.
KING: If someone asked me to characterize this book, I would say, with the highest compliments, that it is a love story, ultimately. What do you think? Is that a fair characterization?
LANSKY: There are kind of several love stories sort of layered into this book. That was my intention as a writer. I think so much of love is about learning to surrender and learning to let go, and surrender is a big theme of this book, too. And so it's a story that, you know, tells once again what I think is a pretty elemental lesson, but I think a lot of people, myself included, have a hard time remembering, which is that it is very difficult to love anyone else fully, truly, you know, with a big, wide-open heart if you have not done the work of learning to love yourself.
(SOUNDBITE OF LORDE SONG, "THE LOUVRE")
KING: That was Sam Lansky, the author of "Broken People," which is out this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.