Sam Lansky on queer storytelling and moving into fiction with Broken People
Sam Lansky is channeling his life story for another compelling and honest story.
After Lansky bore his soul in the memoir The Gilded Razor, something surprising happened: people said they related to his story. "I thought I sold that book because my story was so crazy and everyone was going to read it and be like, 'that's a super-specific and unique way to be a teenager,'" Lansky shares, "I wrote it more out of self-interest, but then I had the unexpected gift after it was over of realizing that people had felt seen or comforted by what I had shared in my incredibly specific story that ultimately I realized I was much more universal than I had known."
Now, he's making his fiction debut with Broken People. In the novel, Sam, a writer living in Los Angeles, is sick and tired of being sick and tired — of his life, not being where he hoped to be in his career, but, mainly, of not being able to be happy or at least content. When Sam hears of a shaman that can "fix" him in a single weekend, he is skeptical but interested enough to go on this unpredictable journey, whether he genuinely believes in it or not.
With Broken People, Lansky explores the ways people believe they are broken and the past events that get us there. "My hope was that readers would relate to this story of know insecurity and anxiety and discomfort," he explains, "Not because I want anybody to feel any of those things, but because I think it's a comfort to know that others are feeling it, too."
We spoke to Lansky about queer storytelling, telling a story about pain, what releasing a book at an unprecedented time is like, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you decide to make a move to fiction? Was this always something you wanted to do?
SAM LANSKY: It was always an aspiration of mine, and for a while, I got caught up in the "I" of it all. I feel like I came of age as a writer during this kind of personal essay boom when a lot of people were writing about their own experiences in this sort of confessional mode and sharing the most intimate parts of themselves online. For so long, I felt like that was really the only thing that spoke to me or appealed to me, mining my own experiences to try and tell stories from that, and that drew me to write my first book, my memoir The Gilded Razor.
Then as I was thinking about this book, I had this feeling that I wanted to still work from a place that was autobiographically inspired but just push myself out of that a teeny bit. To try working in a medium that felt like more of a challenge to me, or represented an opportunity to do things differently.
There's such a present autobiographical aspect to the book for those who read your memoir. What was channeling your experiences into a fictional character like for you?
I had a feeling there was a story there, but for a while, as it was happening, I didn't know exactly how to tell it. It was that thing where something is happening, or you just come out of an experience that feels really formative. You're not quite sure yet what the big takeaway was, what the wisdom was, what the lesson was or how you would assemble the story of what happened into a narrative that would make sense to anyone but you. I'd had relationships, heartbreak, I'd moved across the country. All of these things happened to me, and it didn't feel like there was a kind of organizing principle or a way to tie everything together into a story that would be engaging or compelling. Something that anyone beyond me and my therapist would ever care to read.
Where did the inspiration for the shaman come from?
The conceit of the shamanic experience in the book, the journey that Sam goes on, felt like a way to create some structure narratively. If you're asking me if it was inspired by real experience, absolutely and I own that and have no problem kind of talking about that.
Yeah, it did come from my own experience. I think more broadly, it came from this phenomenon that I had of moving to L.A. from New York. This feeling there was this whole world of New Age wellness, self-care culture that people participated in ways that I felt like my community in New York did not. I was fascinated by that. I feel like in New York, there was just like a real kind of practical survivalist element to everything. Everyone's kind of like hustling and grinding to get through their day.
I came to L.A. and found myself changing in response to the ways the culture seemed really different, and I really wanted to write about that. That was really clear to me from the jump that the culture of wellness, the culture of self-improvement and self-optimization, the culture of believing that you can pay people to fix or change you, all of that was endlessly fascinating to me and a space that I really wanted to dig in to.
How was rendering pain on the page in Broken People? What were the challenges in telling this complex, heavy story?
It was really, really hard, and I feel like that's important to say out loud. I think for some people who write about their own experiences, there is this sort of catharsis or writing as therapy – and if that's true for people, that's great – but that's never been my experience. It always feels like more of an exorcism, to be frank.
Is the idea of queer pain something you consider in your work?
I do think that there is a specificity to queer pain and to the experience of having to come independently into consciousness about your differentness in the world. I've reflected a lot on how for the majority of queer people, they're not all coming up in a family of origin where you are aware of your otherness. You have no models of behavior for what queer love or partnership looks like. Or what it means to be a queer person in the world. I think that's a profoundly isolating or traumatic thing, or at least it has the potential to be, regardless of how nurturing the environment you're raised in is.
There's also so much joy and community to be found in being queer, finding your chosen family, and connecting with people who make you feel seen, represented, and valued. I don't want to say the experience of being queer is exclusively one of pain, isolation, or suffering because it's just not the case and certainly hasn't been the case for me. But I do think that we have a specific set of challenges that we have to work through, and I don't think it necessarily gets easier as we move into adulthood and find those communities of people who share more in common with us.
I write about this quite a bit in the book, I feel really strongly about and come from a really emotional place on the subject of the body. Especially the queer body. I feel like so much of my pain throughout my life has been connected to the culture of body fascism among gay men. The pathological privileging of a specific, white, muscular, Western idealized version of beauty that is so phenomenally narrow and rigid and limiting and racist and exclusionary. It feels unthinkable that that would be the culturally agreed-upon ideal, and yet here we are. I think it causes so many of us who do or have fallen outside the parameters of that to feel even more othered. It's been a real pain point for me as someone who moves through parts of my life in a bigger body that made me feel invisible and really deeply not seen by the very community that I thought would support me and elevate me and hold me up. I believe that pain is also important to talk about because I think it's a frequently hidden pain among queer people, and I do feel like it's starting to shift. There are folks in the activist space who are doing essential work around that and breaking down those old tired standards and changing the conversation, and I'm really excited and inspired by that.
Even as I talk about that, I feel this sort of sensitivity, and it might just see what's happening in the world or in America, more specifically, at the moment. I don't think that the pain of having been in a bigger body and not feeling good about myself for not feeling respected or embraced by my community is on par with what the most vulnerable among us experience every day.
What was launching a book right now been like?
It's been very strange and disorienting, and I feel very unsure of how to be. Just because of the way books sell, it requires a fairly remarkable degree of self-promotion, which I tend to think in the middle of a global crisis is not a great look. It doesn't feel good to be in the trenches of my promo cycle.
Despite all of my misgivings and ambivalence about it, I really hope that this book and its message resonances with people. A message of hope and healing and self-discovery and redemption will resonate more deeply even than it would have otherwise during a time when so many people feel isolated and afraid and concerned about the future. I sincerely feel like it could be a really kind of great tonic for people and deliver them something hopeful and inspiring in a time when hope and inspiration can feel hard to come by.
There's an increase in the range of types of queer literature recently. Do you feel excited about this moment as a queer writer?
I feel so much excitement about the work that is coming from queer writers. I feel especially excited by the work that is coming from queer writers of color, from people like Brandon Taylor and Michael Arceneaux, both of whom I think are so, so talented. I'm encouraged by the kinds of diversity we're seeing in terms of the stories that we are getting. For too long, queer literature has felt like it's been typified by a specific kind of story, and the canon is getting richer in really exciting ways.
I look ahead to my friend Jill Gutowitz, who I think is like one of the funniest people in the world and certainly on Twitter, is going to publish her first book soon. Having more queer women in the canon is so wonderful as well. There's just there's so much on the horizon, too, that I am excited about and I feel like 2020 has already been phenomenally rich here for queer writers.
Music is a big part of your career and your character's life. Does music play a role in your writing process?
Music has been a huge part of my life. It's also hugely important to the protagonist of Broken People as well, and my hope is that my sincere love of pop music and the craft comes through in the book.
There's an Easter egg in the book that was like a thing I did truly for the benefit of myself. There's this sort of evolution to what Sam is listening to as he evolves as a person. Towards the beginning of the book, it's very glittery like Carly Rae Jepsen and Kylie Minogue. Then you go deeper into this relationship; it's a lot of Taylor Swift. Then the last artist I reference at the very end of the book is Maggie Rogers, who I adore. It was meant to represent this shift not only in his sonic palette but in the emotional texture of the character as he moves along through his life and on his journey to finding new ways of being in the world.
Is there anything you learned or see differently about your own life experience after channeling your story in fiction?
This has always really been a book about the stories we tell ourselves about who we are or who we think we are. That was part of why it was important for it to be a novel, to create that distance from my own tendency to tell stories about myself. It was also why it was important to base the character on me and draw from my own experiences because it represented an opportunity to explore that idea of kind of self-storytelling in a different way.
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