Attend the Book Launch

May 28 at 7:30pm

On May 28 at 7:30pm, the Parkway Central Free Library of Philadelphia hosts the Housemates book launch, followed by a conversation with Emma Copley Eisenberg and The New Yorker and New York Times Book Review contributor Jennifer Wilson.


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Building a City of Writerly Love

As she was writing Housemates, her new novel about creating art, Emma Copley Eisenberg helped start and foster an organization that makes it a little easier to create art in Philadelphia

Building a City of Writerly Love

As she was writing Housemates, her new novel about creating art, Emma Copley Eisenberg helped start and foster an organization that makes it a little easier to create art in Philadelphia

When author (and former Citizen writer) Emma Copley Eisenberg moved back to West Philly in 2015, she was in search of community.

She’d just graduated from an MFA program at the University of Virginia. She was writing. Her first book — the nonfiction, true crime The Third Rainbow Girl would come out in 2020. But she felt lonely. She was unlucky in love. A year later, Donald Trump was elected president, and Eisenberg felt like the country was becoming hostile towards not just artists, but queer people like herself.

“I was asking a lot of big questions: How should a person be? How to pursue a life in writing that also aligns with my values? How to think about community with other people? How important is romantic love in an artistic life?” she recalls.

Nearly eight years later, Eisenberg will be the first to admit she doesn’t have all the answers to those big questions. But she has been busy. In 2018, she co-founded Blue Stoop, a nonprofit literary arts organization that supports and helps build community among writers in Philly. She also wrote a novel. Housemates is the story of two queer young adults, Bernie and Leah, who meet as roommates in a West Philly house and embark on a road trip, stopping to take photos of and interview some of the people they meet along the way. The book, which comes out May 28, attempts to answer some of Eisenberg’s own questions about what it means to live, build community and make art in these times.

“She is thinking about the collective at all times and about bringing people with her as she gets a platform for herself and to share her own work,” says Annie Liontas, a friend and fellow Philly author, most recently of Sex With a Brain Injury.

A multigenerational, queer love story

Eisenberg got the idea for Housemates in 2017 after reading a book about 20th century film photographer Berenice Abbott. Abbott, who photographed cultural figures and architecture in New York City, took a three-week road trip with the art critic Elizabeth McCausland from New York through Pennsylvania to the Midwest and then through the South. When the two returned home, they published the art book Changing New York, with photos from Abbott and captions by McCausland.

Eisenberg was entranced by how Abbott and McCausland left for the trip “very alone and isolated from each other and single and … confused about the art that they wanted to make in the world” and emerged “very together as a couple and very clear about the vision that they wanted to pursue for this collaborative art project.”

But she didn’t want to write a historical novel. She wanted her book to incorporate all of the complexity of living and working that queer people face today. Plus, a book about Abbott already exists: The Realist: A Novel of Berenice Abbott by Sarah Coleman.

“I’ve never felt the kind of supportive vibrant energy in our Philadelphia writing community that I have in the past five years or so. I really think that Emma is a big part of that.” Elise Juska

That’s where Bernie and Leah enter the picture. Bernie is a large-format photographer, and Leah is a journalist. The characters are trying to puzzle through some of the same questions about art that Abbott, McCausland and Eisenberg have about creating art in challenging political times.

The book is told from the perspective of an older queer woman and photographer who has just lost her life partner and follows Bernie and Leah’s journey. Throughout, all three ponder the question of whether or not art can save your life. “I feel like all the characters in the book would give different answers,” Eisenberg says. “I think they [Bernie and Leah] have a sense that they want to make art, but they don’t know how, and that’s hopefully part of what they find in each other.”

Eisenberg is also excited to see the book’s impact on certain readers. Leah is fat — but their weight is not a major plot point. “I wanted to write a novel that is about a character who happens to be fat, but the book is not about her solving her body or losing weight or even deciding that she loves her body and it’s all fine. It’s a more complex journey than that,” she says.

Building a home for Philly writers

As she was writing her novel about people struggling to make art in Philly, Eisenberg was also starting an organization that helps make it just a little bit easier to be a writer in the city. In 2018, she and co-founder Joshua Demaree started Blue Stoop, a nonprofit that holds book events and offers free and low-cost writing events.

Eisenberg and Demaree met through a mutual friend who had worked at Penn Book Center with both of them, though at different times. The organization takes its name from the Thomas Devaney poem, “The Blue Stoop.” (Devaney is, among other things, engagement director at Drexel’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation, a frequent partner of The Citizen.) It’s an ekphrasis, a poem that describes a piece of art. In this case, it’s a photograph of a home with a baby blue stoop. The organization’s tagline is “A Home for Philly Writers.”

At the time, Philly had a healthy but siloed writing scene. The poetry scene was vibrant, but prose writers in fiction and nonfiction had a tougher time connecting. Many cycled through the city on their way to New York. “I felt so out of the loop, not living in New York,” says Jennifer Wilson, a book critic and Philly native.

Eisenberg honed the idea for Blue Stoop largely through conversations with writers like Wilson who were living in the city at the time. Wilson was a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania who wanted to transition out of academia and into writing full-time, but wasn’t sure how.

Eisenberg and Wilson met over happy hour drinks at Loco Pez on Baltimore Avenue, where Eisenberg asked what the community needed. She held more meetings and learned that people wanted a central hub of literary resources. So — with no funding — Eisenberg and Demaree began Blue Stoop with pay-what-you-can writing classes in 2018.

Blue Stoop now offers funding, classes and events for Philly writers. In 2020, they shifted their classes and much of their programming to meet online and have kept it that way to make their offerings more accessible. In addition to classes, the organization also holds an in-person reading series and free programs for writers on Thursdays called “Thursday on the Stoop.”

When Wilson, who has since taught Blue Stoop courses, was first getting to know Eisenberg and still working in academia, the organization felt like a place where she could meet writers who were making it work — without living in New York. “[Through Blue Stoop] I met so many people who had day jobs and writing on the side and had really great writing careers,” Wilson says.

When [Eisenberg] co-founded the organization, the group held 13 public events, six pay-what-you-can classes and awarded $18,000 to Philly writers. By the time she left, Blue Stoop held 62 free public events, 30 pay-what-you-can classes and awarded $82,000 to writers.

Writing Blue Stoop into her novel

In 2022, Eisenberg stepped down as director of Blue Stoop and passed the reins to Frankford writer Joseph Earl Thomas. When she co-founded the organization, the group held 13 public events, six pay-what-you-can classes and awarded $18,000 to Philly writers. By the time she left, Blue Stoop held 62 free public events, 30 pay-what-you-can classes and awarded $82,000 to writers.

This year, so far, they’ve given $2,500 in financial aid to low-income students, paid $15,000 to writers for teaching, facilitating and reading at events, and hosted five free readings and 18 free “Thursday on the Stoop” programs. Last year, more than 300 students participated in Blue Stoop’s programming. The majority of the organization’s instructors are BIPOC and 45 percent are LGBTQIA+.

​​After Thomas stepped down from the organization’s leadership last month to pursue a Fullbright and a full-time teaching job, Taylor Townes and Julian Shendelman, both of whom have long been involved with the organization, became co-directors.

Last year, the organization saw a decrease in earned revenue and struggled due to “changes in the local funding landscape,” Shendelman says. In a recent email to the Blue Stoop community, the new co-directors said they will be fundraising over the next few months and will pause summer classes with a plan to relaunch in the fall. “We’re excited to build on the groundwork Emma and Joseph laid, and to maintain and further develop the collaborative, inclusive environment Blue Stoop is known for,” Shendelman says.

“Once things are in a more stable place, we want to deliver on Blue Stoop’s promise to improve the lives of writers across the greater Philadelphia region by providing educational resources, community support, and professional opportunities. We’re dreaming of book clubs, fellowships, festivals, publications, writing groups and more. The sky’s the limit!”

Eisenberg currently works as a visiting assistant professor of creative writing at Wesleyan University, but she continues to play an active role in Philly’s literary community. Elise Juska, a fiction writer and University of the Arts professor who has lived in Philly all her life, has written with Liontas and Eisenberg — alongside other big names, like Carmen Maria Machado, Kiley Reid and Liz Moore — as part of the Philly, women, gender-queer and non-binary writer’s group The Claw.

She praised Eisenberg’s work with Blue Stoop, which she recommends to her students as a place to continue writing after graduation, but also her support of writers in general. Earlier this month, Eisenberg held a pre-publication party for Housemates and invited Juska and two other Philly writers so they could promote their recent or upcoming books as well.

“I’ve never felt the kind of supportive vibrant energy in our Philadelphia writing community that I have in the past five years or so,” Juska says. “I really think that Emma is a big part of that.”

Blue Stoop is never far from Eisenberg’s mind. She continues to serve the organization as an advisory board member and jokes that Blue Stoop even made it into her novel. (Spoiler alert: Bernie and Leah start their own arts nonprofit.)

“I didn’t anticipate writing a community-based, nonprofit into my novel,” Eisenberg says, “but once I had written their project in full for the end of the book, I was like, I think I kind of put Blue Stoop into the novel.”

Housemates will be released on May 28. That evening, Eisenberg will launch the book with a reading followed by a conversation with Jennifer Wilson at the Parkway Central Free Library of Philadelphia at 7:30pm.


Emma Copley Eisenberg. Her latest book is Housemates

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