All Classical Radio James Depreist

Can art save your life? Author Emma Copley Eisenberg’s road-tripping queer heroes seek an answer in ‘Housemates’

The author will appear July 10 at Powell’s Books in Portland to read from and discuss her first novel.

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Noting that the main characters of "Housemates" are young millenials, author Emma Copley Eisenberg says, "I think it’s a unique experience -- coming of age during the Obama years, then graduating into a world where Trump is in charge. That’s a particular kind of jarring experience, almost like a revocation of joy. You think that things are moving in a progressive direction, and then it’s yanked back…" Photo by: Kenzi Crash, courtesy Emma Copley Eisenberg
Noting that the main characters of “Housemates” are young millenials, author Emma Copley Eisenberg says, “I think it’s a unique experience — coming of age during the Obama years, then graduating into a world where Trump is in charge. That’s a particular kind of jarring experience, almost like a revocation of joy.” Photo by: Kenzi Crash, courtesy Emma Copley Eisenberg

It is perhaps a particularly American instinct – at least, in literature – to hit the road during a major turning point in life. Housemates, Emma Copley Eisenberg’s newest book and first novel, interrogates and celebrates that impulse.

The novel’s main characters, Bernie and Leah, originally meet when Bernie answers an ad to live in a queer group home with Leah and two other people. Almost on a whim, the two hit the road after Bernie’s photography professor, Daniel Dunn, dies and Bernie inherits his large-format camera equipment and photography. Dunn died in tarnished and ill repute due to sexual harassment allegations, and as Bernie struggles with inheriting his artistic legacy, Leah suggests a road trip to Dunn’s house, then eastern Pennsylvania.

As they travel, they document the people and landscapes through Bernie’s large-format photography and Leah’s nonfiction writing. They are not only capturing a slice of America during Donald Trump’s presidency (the novel is set in 2018), but also trying to find their way back to their passion for their respective artistic practices in a world that devalues and constricts artistic expression. The answers they find are far from simple, as is their relationship, which evolves into one of love.

Copley Eisenberg founded and was the first director of Blue Stoop, a literary arts center in Philadelphia. Her first book, The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2020 and nominated for an Edgar Award and a Lambda Literary Award. It investigates the 1980 murder of two women in Pocahontas County, W.Va., and the murder’s enduring impact on the community.

She is a proponent of the “both/and” — the idea that two opposing ideas can be simultaneously true, leading to nuance and complexity and, maybe, something more truthful.

I talked with Copley Eisenberg in advance of her reading at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 10, at Powell’s Books in Portland. She will be joined in conversation by Portland author Kimberly King Parsons. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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I want to ask about the cat that lives with Bernie, Leah, and their housemates – Jigger. Is that homage to Digger the dog in Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For

Copley Eisenberg: Oh, that’s amazing. No, I didn’t even know that, or forgot about that. But this book does have a historical inspiration. There’s a real photographer, Berenice Abbott, and she had a real-life partner, romantic partner, and creative partner named Elizabeth McCausland, and their cat was really named Jigger.

Was it really? Cool. Abbott and McCausland had gone on a real road trip in 1935. I have always thought of the road trip as very much a genre in American fiction, but it’s very straight and very male.

Totally.

How did you think through that when you were writing a novel about two queer people going on a road trip?

This is a connected thought to The Third Rainbow Girl. I’m interested in women and people on the road, going on adventures to see what’s out there. I wanted to let Bernie and Leah have these grand ambitions and grand questions that they were going to play out as they traveled.

Road narratives are so often white and male. But there are also these long histories of less well-known, forgotten road trips that happened between queer and women artists. There’s Muriel Rukeyser and Dorothea Lange [for example]. I think this has been hiding in plain sight. Women and queer people have been going on road trips since the dawn of car travel. Those aren’t the road trips that get famous and get canonized.  

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In terms of the idea of erasure or living invisibly, the narrator of the book is an older lesbian who has lost the love of her life and cannot publicly acknowledge that, and she observes Bernie and Leah. Why frame the book with her?

That wasn’t always the way it was written. There was a period where it was a more straightforward contemporary plot of Bernie and Leah, and the book went back and forth between them. I felt that wasn’t working. It didn’t provide enough sense of why the story mattered. I was really interested in this question of why even make art at all? And can art save your life? That’s a big question that I was asking myself as I was writing this book, during the pandemic and during the Trump years. I wanted the book to direct the reader’s attention to these bigger questions of queer artistic legacy, and inheritance, and generational shift. There was a flexibility that kind of first-person narrator provides that a really intimate contemporary third person doesn’t.   

I don’t like pigeonholing books or labeling things, generally, but as I was reading I was thinking about Bernie and Leah’s age, the fact they live in group housing, that they struggle with relationships and power structures. I’m wondering, would you call this a millennial book?

I think so. Bernie and Lee are a little younger than me. They’re born in 1994 or 1995, so they’re young millennials. Generational differences are real and are present in the book. They graduated college the year that Trump was elected. I think it’s a unique experience — coming of age during the Obama years, then graduating into a world where Trump is in charge. That’s a particular kind of jarring experience, almost like a revocation of joy. You think that things are moving in a progressive direction, and then it’s yanked back…

Full stop.   

Yeah.

I remember that.

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They’re coming into adulthood during the pandemic. I was interested in that particular experience, which isn’t quite my experience but is adjacent to it. We’ve seen every structure sort of crumble, at a bit of a slower pace. But I feel like folks that are slightly younger [think that] everything we thought would provide ballast or structure to our life is just literally gone now. I think there’s something about this idea that, indeed, the future just feels blank. It feels so unknown. No one has any idea what’s coming anymore. And I wanted to give Bernie and Leah a sense that they want to document the world before it’s totally eradicated, before it’s totally blank.

I want to read a couple lines from Leah’s point of view that touches on this. You wrote:

…something was missing from her mind. She was becoming more and more convinced some vital piece. It felt like there had to be another way, some other way of communicating true things and being understood that didn’t involve exploiting people or selling your brain for money or employing the clickbait creation techniques she so hated. But what was it? Didn’t know.

What struck me is that Bernie and Leah are answering those kinds of questions in a way that comes from them, rather than from the external world.

Exactly. Leah is better at saying “no” to things. I was just talking about this last night. An audience person asked, “do you think refusing is a coming-of-age stage?” … I liked that wording. Leah has a sense that there could be, or must be, another way that’s more human. That’s a question that I have all the time, too.

It’s finding out what feels true and authentic to her, what really resonates.

Yeah.   

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Bernie and Leah’s relationship seems to be the quintessential, classic queer relationship: You meet someone and then it ends up being a major inflection point in your life. You write:

Bernie wondered about Leah then this person who was on the one hand, so like everyone else, and on the other hand, not at all, it felt good to wonder about someone, a thing that had not happened to Bernie in a long time.

I’m very interested in the specific kind of force field that happens between two people who meet and become very important to each other. That doesn’t happen that many times in a life, you know? In a lot of the conversations [I’ve had about the book] … people describe them as friends. They are, but they’re also sexy friends and…

 Soulmates?

Soulmates, housemates, artistic collaborators. It’s interesting that people are struggling. We don’t have a lot of words that include a romantic and sexual connection and another element. I do think it’s very queer, as you said.  

It’s your allegiance to both/and. That you can have a relationship with someone who is a housemate and a friend. It can be sexual or romantic and be all these other things.

Yeah, absolutely.

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What I hear you saying is that we don’t have language to describe the people in our lives who just help us live our best lives and be our most authentic, real self.

And we don’t have language to articulate why people that we live in close proximity to become really important to us. There’s not enough recognition of those bonds as important, because they don’t fit in any particular category that we have.  

Do you want to say anything else?

Some people have remarked on the fact that they’re surprised that a fat character – Leah – gets to have a rich life in the book. And appreciate that Leah’s fat and nonbinary. I didn’t realize there are not that many literary novels that have fat, nonbinary characters.  

You’re absolutely using this book as a platform to talk about fatness, and, really, it’s political advocacy in the writing you’re doing right now. Could you talk about that?  

I wanted to write a novel where there was a fat character where their body is not a problem. Leah isn’t done or tidily healed from fat phobia by the end of the book. I tried to write about that explicitly and also ask, why is it that more than half of Americans are fat, but less than 1 percent of the New York Times notable fiction has a fat main character? What are we doing? I wanted to call that out explicitly: Not only does fat phobia appear in contemporary fiction all the time, but the industry of publishing does not support interesting and nuanced stories about body diversity. [But] if you’re writing fiction about America, you’re writing about fat people, fundamentally. I just find that contradiction so strange.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amanda Waldroupe is a freelance journalist and writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Guardian, Bklyner, The Brooklyn Rail, InvestigateWest, The Oregonian, the Portland Tribune, Oregon Humanities, and many others. She has been a fellow and writer-in-residence at the Logan Nonfiction Program, the Banff Centre’s Literary Journalism program, Alderworks Alaska, and the Sou’wester Artist Residency Program.
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