Broken People: A Novel

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Art Imitates Life: The Millions Interviews Sam Lansky

Listen, I’ve never had my chakras realigned but I do have a crystal somewhere that probably needed to be charged four full moons ago. When it comes to new-age spirituality, I’m probably a bit cynical. But I’m not one to look askance anyone’s religious, spiritual, mystical—or anything in between—practice.

Especially after I finished reading Broken People by Sam Lansky.

Like any good book, it challenged my ideas on how we practice self-care, self-awareness, and introspection. Without being prescriptive, Lansky’s exploration of how pain and trauma live in the body is triumphant in its careful, sensitive, and often humorous exploration of complex and nuanced topics.

After Sam (the protagonist), overhears a conversation about a globetrotting shaman at a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills—“he fixes everything that’s wrong with you in three days”—he’s skeptical but his interest is piqued. A young man on the edge of emotional collapse, Sam agrees to sign up for a weekend—a three-day ceremony—facilitated by the shaman who promises to tap into the divine by using ayahuasca, a powerful South American psychoactive, as a gateway. Whether the ayahuasca was a placebo,,magic, or myth, the ghosts in Sam’s memory prove to be a powerful force of their own.

Broken People explores the space between the material and the mystic,, and carves a space for the neurodivergent in the midst of it all: a place to coexist with pain and, eventually, learn from it.

The Millions: As someone familiar with your work, including your memoir, The Gilded Razor, it’s apparent that this novel is a work of autofiction. What made you go this route instead of writing another memoir? Did it have anything to do with you experiencing resistance when pitching another memoir, like your protagonist does?

Sam Lansky: Greg! You’re not going to let me off easy here, are you? This is what I’ll say about this: The publishing market is its own slightly temperamental thing, and I’ll admit to some anxiety about memoir fatigue, particularly from a relatively young writer. But I also had a genuine desire to get away from the trap of the “I” voice, which was a place I’d been living in for much of my career, and this felt like an opportunity to mine some of my own experiences while experimenting with a medium I hadn’t explored yet.

TM: Your protagonist is also named Sam. Why did you choose to name him after yourself and not create greater distance with another name?

SL: I don’t want to be prescriptive about what readers should take away from this book, but the story I most wanted to tell—and the one I tried to tell with Broken People—is about the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and how sticky our seductive tendencies to self-narrativize can be. Naming the character after myself felt like a way to address that head-on—I intended it less as a way of saying, “This is a book about me!” and more because I have thought so much about how my own propensity for storytelling can be my worst addiction. To call the character Sam points out my complicity in that pattern.

TM: Every body of work—be it a memoir or a novel—follows an arc and aims for tonal consistency. What was it like fitting your real life story into the narrative framework of a novel?

SL: After my first book came out, I spent about a year writing without much sense of structure or narrative cohesion—it was just a familiar, therapeutic way of processing my experiences. Then, an encounter with a healer—not unlike the one Sam has in the book—shifted the way I had been thinking about my own loss and heartache. Very quickly this narrative snapped into place, and I felt like I had a really clear sense of the shape of this story, which I’d been missing up until that point.

TM: What tools did fiction equip you with that may not have been utilized when writing another memoir?

SL: As a journalist and writer of personal narrative, I long felt beholden to accuracy, even if the pact you make with a reader as a writer of memoir is more about memory than the facts. Having the freedom to compress, imagine, or rewrite stories or characters that may have started as lived experience but then got to shape-shift into something more dynamic or imaginative felt like such a gift.

You know, I came up during the golden age of the personal essay (which critics like Jia Tolentino have written about so smartly), and I felt very steeped in the culture of so-called “confessional” writing; it’s almost been something I’ve had to deprogram from, both my perception that it’s inherently positive or valuable to write about yourself and also the way that doing so serves my ego and fuels my narcissism. Writing this book as a novel felt like a very gentle tug away from personal narrative. My next book will be much more of a departure. I’m giving you my word on that. Mercifully, I’m not as interested in myself as a subject as I once was.

TM: Your novel moved me to my core: that’s a pun (Intended, thank you very much), because the shaman identifies a mass in Sam’s core, which basically stores the years of trauma he’s experienced. It made me think about what I live with, things I’m learning to live with. Was writing this novel a way of coexisting with the pain in your life?

SL: I’m glad to hear it resonated with you so viscerally. (Sorry.) This is tricky: I think there’s a tension between learning to live with your pain and refusing to fight your demons because they feel intractable. I should also say that I’m not a guru; if I wrote a self-help book, it would be terrible. Far be it from me to dispense life wisdom! But, both with my first book and with this one, I discovered a lot of grace in the phenomenon of, for lack of a better term, releasing it—that I had turned some tale of personal struggle into something useful that no longer belonged to me, because it now belonged to readers, and so it wasn’t mine to carry anymore. I do think we continue coexisting with pain, but I also believe, more and more, that we can learn to transcend it.

TM: Do you think that, as a society, we need to move away from the language that includes “healing” and “being fixed” and focus more on accepting the role of pain and trauma in our lives?

SL: Yes! Although I might draw a distinction between “healing” and “being fixed.” I’m definitely suspicious of anything being fixed, but I am more willing to consider a vocabulary of healing. (Maybe too willing, if I’m being honest with myself.) For those of us who’ve had access to resources like therapy or self-care—and that access is a tremendous privilege in and of itself—there can be a tendency to pathologize everything, or to view our feelings as problems to be solved. A lot of my own growth over the last couple years, as a writer and as a human being, has come from asking myself questions like: What is this discomfort trying to show me? Is there wisdom in this pain? Which I realize sounds very witchy, but I mean it in a real, practical way.

Let’s say I’m at a party and I’m having a ton of anxiety—which has been the case at every party I’ve ever been to, by the way. My first impulse is to make the anxiety the problem, and by extension, myself. But what if the anxiety is my body’s infinitely wise way of telling me that the party sucks? Can I embrace the anxiety as a teacher instead of as a fault? And can doing so allow me to be more forgiving with myself? I also think that, as the extraordinary pain of the last few months has laid bare—both from the pandemic and then more recently from the reckoning around violence against Black people and police brutality in America—we have an urgent responsibility to honor pain and trauma in our society, both the personal and the collective. It’s tempting to want to compartmentalize, or to shut down whether we are feeling our own anguish or witnessing that of others. But as we process and move through our own pain, we crack open and become more capable of empathy. That, to me, feels like its own form of healing. 

TM: Towards the end, I was reminded of something my therapist has been trying to teach me: radical acceptance. Is this something you practice in your life?

SL: It’s something that I aspire to, but I don’t know if I’d call it a practice! I’m not someone who’s historically done a great job of embracing life on life’s terms, and that’s something I’m still working on. When I got sober, people in recovery talked a lot about acceptance, and I always felt uneasy about it. My unwillingness to accept what was happening was the primary driver of my ambition—if I was truly in acceptance, wouldn’t I become complacent? But I’ve come around to it much more, or I should say that my resistance has softened. Even if I’m not in radical acceptance, I push back more gently now. Also, it sounds like you have a good therapist.

TM: I feel like the people in my life fall largely in the middle of the Venn diagram, between cynic and believer. What do you want your reader to take away in regards to the intersection of materialism and mysticism?

SL: One of my biggest frustrations with the rhetoric of self-care, especially as it’s tied up with contemporary mysticism, is that it can feel so rarefied and so classist. But self-love and self-acceptance should not be solely available to people of a certain tax bracket or race—bluntly, they are not the exclusive domain of wealthy white women, regardless of how they are sold—and I don’t really believe that you need a fancy shaman to “fix” you. Part of my goal with Broken People was to interrogate that bougie New Age culture, about which I feel so much ambivalence, even as it continuously props me up through my life. I’ve been reflecting on my own potential for healing and the extent to which change can be incremental, and function outside of a capitalist framework; my earnest hope is that it leads readers to do the same.

TM: What did you learn about yourself while writing this book?

SL: You know, it’s funny—I think I learned that I am capable of saying the thing that I need to say, even if it scares me. Though it’s fiction, I poured so much of myself into this book, and it feels like a radically vulnerable act of public nudity. But for whatever reason, I needed to tell this story, and so I did, as plainly as I could. Now there are no more cobwebs.

Surprise Me!

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