On the Road of Journalism: A Conversation with Jessica Bruder, Author of Nomadland

On the Road of Journalism: A Conversation with Jessica Bruder, Author of Nomadland

Every so often, a journalist finds a story and gives it wings. What Jessica Bruder ’00 found in “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” didn’t need wings — it already had wheels. 

“Nomadland” is the deeply candid chronicle of a growing community of American nomads who, after the Great Recession, turned their vehicles into homes to travel the country in search of work and a liberated lifestyle. It observes a host of nomads, getting to know their quirks, their struggles and sometimes even their pets. Throughout the book, we learn about their lifestyle alongside Bruder, who lived in a van of her own while reporting the project. The result is a sometimes devastating, sometimes humorous (but always honest) account of how economic struggle created a neighborhood of nomads with no house in sight.   

“Nomadland” was published in 2017 and shortly afterward adapted for film. Directed by Chloe Zhao, the film stars Frances McDormand and features the nomads Bruder met in her reporting who play themselves. It recently took home three Oscars, including Best Picture.   

Bruder is a journalist who focuses on subcultures, social issues and the intersection of the two. She teaches at Columbia Journalism School and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, WIRED, the Oregonian and many more. But before she was an award-winning writer, Bruder was a barista, a camp counselor and an Amherst student. After graduating as an English and French major in 2000, Bruder completed an Amherst fellowship in South Africa to continue research into her senior thesis on apartheid — an experience that planted one of the first seeds of her journalistic passion. She then went on to Columbia Journalism School, meeting some of her best friends and becoming the storyteller she is today. Bruder is also the author of “Burning Book” and “Snowden’s Box: Trust in the Age of Surveillance.”

It’s easy to look at a resume like Bruder’s and assume you may never get an email reply. That is fortunately not the case. I had the honor of speaking with Bruder yesterday, and from even just one conversation, it was clear that the compassion and authenticity of “Nomadland” is genetic — the book got it from its author.

Rebecca Picciotto: You started looking at nomad life as a story for Harper’s Magazine in 2013. What was the initial motivation to investigate this niche of American life and how did you first learn about it?

Jessica Bruder: I’m really interested in writing about subcultures — non-blood families, people who come together either through common interests or adversity and create their own worlds within our larger world. So when I learned about work campers and people who are out there on the road often at or nearing traditional retirement age, going from job to job on this seasonal labor circuit, this was something I knew nothing about. I remember growing up and seeing RVs from time to time and just thinking, “Okay, those are the last of the pensioners. There they go, grandma and grandpa, they are retired comfortably and they’re going to see all the sites in the U.S.” And the first thing I learned that suggested that it might be a little different was that I heard about Amazon’s CamperForce program, which recruits from this population to do warehouse work, usually in the lead-up to the holiday season. And the first thing I thought was, “Well, that’s not a vacation.” And it kind of rolled on from there.

RP: It struck me how deeply you immersed yourself in this reporting. You lived on the road for months. You worked undercover at an Amazon warehouse. What compelled you to live the story you were reporting as opposed to just documenting it from the outside?

JB: As an outsider doing face-to-face, one-on-one interviews — like what you and I are doing right now — you get to one level with a person, but, you know, I might turn off the camera and go set something on fire. Do you know what I mean? Like, we’re not together all the time, which is probably good, because my apartment is a little messy. But we go one level with this and I might be kind of turning it on for you because I’m in an interview, or you know, maybe I’m really a jerk — I mean, I hope not. But I feel like when you immerse with a population, you’re there all the time and you get to become part of the furniture. So anyone who’s turning it on for you just gets really accustomed to you and stops doing it. For me, that was important. I wanted to be around 24/7. I wanted to be there at night. I wanted to learn just everything I could. So for me, immersion was definitely the way to go. It wasn’t the idea that I could somehow merge with and become part of this population. The idea was if I really wanted to be a faithful chronicler, I would interview people but I would also observe them. And I would learn in both ways.

RP: Well, I think it worked. I mean, the level of detail you were able to capture as an observer of this lifestyle is quite impressive. What do your notebooks look like? How do you approach the art of observation and what is your documentation process like?

JB: My notebooks are cluttered as all get-out. I love working with the classic reporter’s notebook, which always makes you feel like you’re walking around as a meter maid — it looks like you’re writing out tickets. And I usually record, as well. I find it’s important to do both because every now and then recorders fail, which is tragic. Actually, I wrote my thesis at Amherst about censorship under apartheid and I got to, at the very last minute, interview Nadine Gordimer. I was on a fellowship from Amherst in South Africa right after graduation and I had no journalism experience and was totally new to this world and my recorder failed and it was incredibly humiliating. So now I’m extra diligent about that stuff.

So I do that and I also try to make myself — journal isn’t the right word, because it’s not quite that personal — but I try, at the end of each day when I’ve been out in the field, even if I’m tired, to just jot down thoughts and impressions — the kind of things that, if I don’t catch them and bottle them, will fade like a dream hours after you’ve woken up. And that was incredibly helpful in writing “Nomadland.” I’m really glad I did it when I was working on the Harper’s story because that gave me a lot of rich material to draw from along with the new material I was gathering for the book.

RP: In a New York Times essay, you give a pretty chilling description of your first night of van life. But there’s a quote in the book that says that despite the fear of that first night on the road, humans are able to make anything into a habit. How long did it take for you to make this lifestyle a habit?

JB: Well, it’s funny. I didn’t really expect to have that much of an adjustment process because I’m a longtime camper. I like the outdoors and, for me, this was more of a temporary reporting situation rather than “This is how I live now, and I have to change up everything.” So I somehow expected to be immune from the first-night jitters and was absolutely not. I was really worried about getting rousted by the police — just getting found out — [but] that dissipated over time.

Also, sometimes I would be camping and parked in wilderness areas where it was less of a problem. It didn’t completely go away, but I realized by the time I got home from that first trip, which was about two months [later], when I woke up in my bedroom, I felt incredibly anxious because I don’t live in a large large large place, but my bedroom just felt big. The ceiling felt far away. I was so used to waking up in that small den of a van and that was how I realized I’d acclimated more than I even knew when I was out there — [it was] the contrast of coming home.

RP: And while you were on the road, what expedited and what slowed down the process of settling in?

JB: What expedited it was all the help I got from people I’d met doing the Harper’s story. I think they could tell I was really into it. The first time I was out there reporting, I was out there with my tent, I was freezing my butt off, I was totally gung-ho. And people were joking with me, “Oh, you’re going to come back with a van.” “Oh, you’re doing so much reporting, are you writing a book?” Because I just report the heck out of everything I’m writing. And I said, “Oh yeah, that would be cool, but that’s never going to happen.” And then it did.

So when I was out there with the van, people were incredible. I remember I went to a thrift store with Linda May — who was the main person in the magazine story and then the book — and just got a bunch of stuff I needed to kit out the van, like old silverware and stuff, and a few things that I wouldn’t have thought of if she hadn’t been there. She was really into helping me get it together, so I think I had a lot of help.

What slowed it down? There were just stupid things I didn’t know about driving a four-ton vehicle. I grew up in New Jersey, the great Garden State, and [it’s] pretty flat. They don’t even teach us how to pump our own gas. So, for example, I was coming downhill from the San Bernardino Mountains, where Linda was working as a campground host. And I’d been shadowing her for a few weeks and I just didn’t know how to engine-brake and downshift and I completely fried the ABS [anti-lock braking system] sensors in this 1995 GMC that I’d been driving. And replacing parts on a vehicle that is, gosh, possibly older than you are is not easy.

RP: So, in those moments, how important is it to have a sense of humor?

JB: Oh, it’s critical, it’s absolutely critical. And for me, it was really important to show the sense of humor of the people I was documenting as well, because people are amazing — the way they adapt, the way they find humor, camaraderie. And I think some people who read the book came to it expecting that they were going to read something that was only depressing, that people would be walking around in burlap and throwing ashes on themselves and lamenting their lot. But people don’t usually do that and there’s a good reason for it. So it was really important to me to show the sense of humor and these flashes of joy that people shared on the road.

RP: It’s so true — the characters in the story are definitely multi-dimensional. One dimension of them is their pets. Did you by chance bring your dog on the road?

JB: I wish I could have brought my dog. If you hear some clunking around in the background, it’s him. He’s 91 in human years, diabetic and wearing traction socks so he doesn’t fall on the floor. I didn’t [bring him on the road] because he’s a rescue and I wasn’t always sure if he’d get along with other people’s dogs, and I [thought] that might cause trouble. Also, in the desert, if I had to go in somewhere, [I didn’t like] the idea of leaving him in the vehicle. If I was more solid in the community, I could just say, “Hey, could you watch my dog?” But it just seemed like it would complicate things. So, he stayed with some dear friends who consider him dog family. I got pictures. Let’s put it that way.

RP: The trend of nomadic living in America is, as you note, a product of the 2008 recession and increasing economic inequality. Still, the characters in your book seem to see van life as a choice and seem perfectly content, even proud, of their nomadic lifestyle. To what extent do you think the nomad lifestyle is actually a choice?

JB: Well, I don’t always refer to the sort of vehicle dwelling that I covered as #VanLife just because that is a phrase that, in my mind at least, has become pretty synonymous with something I would refer to as a brand, rather than a movement. We’ve got influencers on Instagram and part-timers. And while I do believe that some of these trends towards minimalism and getting out on the road are influenced by economic complications — because we can’t separate fashion and the economy as much as we want to — it doesn’t work that way. For a lot of the people I wrote about, it wasn’t always a “grammable” situation that they were in.

So a lot of people I met would tell me, “I chose to do this,” and then three days later, I would hear about the divorce, the debt, the 2008 crash. And I realized that in the minds of the people I was speaking with, they said, “I chose to do this and these things happened.” These two things didn’t cancel each other out because maybe there was another option of sleeping on someone’s couch [or] going to a shelter. But being able to choose says, “I still have agency,” and says, “I still have dignity,” and that’s something I respected a great deal. So I wanted to honor what people say but also acknowledge that the choices people were making weren’t always from the broadest palette of options that we would want people to have.

RP: Nomads are a much older, predominantly white population. What do you think explains these demographic patterns?

JB: A lot of people I met on the road doing this sort of circuit of jobs were older and white. There were other people out there, too. In the book, I think I mentioned a few younger people I met who had issues with student debt, not wanting to go into debt to graduate from college and not get a well-paying job — all sorts of reasons, including economic ones. But the people I interviewed who were doing the jobs, including CamperForce, are primarily at or nearing retirement age and white … When I was in Quartzsite, Arizona, I was speaking to a pastor who ran a soup kitchen, and he told me, “Quartzsite is a good place for old people to hide.” And I said, “What are they hiding from? These people aren’t on the lam from the police or something?” And he said, “No, but they’re hiding from their children, and sometimes they don’t want their children to know that they’re having a rough time,” … And for people who are dealing with this sort of economic precarity, RVing, for whatever reason, has always been predominantly white. People are working to change that now and diversify it, which is cool. There are all sorts of different identity groups, and I think that’s fantastic. But also we know that traveling while Black or brown is a big issue in the U.S. When I was working on the book, it felt like every other week, there was a headline about a cop shooting an unarmed African-American motorist. I remember driving through all of these border checkpoints in Arizona that weren’t even on the border — I don’t know how they managed to do this, but they were inland — and just thinking that if I was Latinx, it would be a different story. You know, the white girl [gets] waved through. So I think there are a lot of reasons, and those are a couple.

RP: How involved were you in the film adaptation process? What was it like watching the story you reported for upwards of five years get made for the big screen?

JB: It’s totally weird. I just remember showing up to visit the set in Quartzsite, Arizona. I was there for a couple of weeks living out of my van and on the set where they were shooting the recreation of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. It was super weird because, first of all, when I’m out there reporting, I’m a one-woman band — I’m capturing the story by myself. And suddenly, there are people doing lighting and the art department, and it’s just strange. I mean, they get to work as a team, and I thought that was really cool — I love the art department, they were fantastic — but just that was very surreal. It was also surreal because they were recreating an event to make it look like it was around the time when I was first there. But this event had grown from under 75 people to probably over 8,000 and a bunch of us went from the fake small event to the real big one because they were happening around the same time. So there was definitely some mind-warping, reality-bending stuff there as we walked between reality and fiction.

For me, this isn’t the kind of book that necessarily screams to most people, “Adapt me!” If you look at youth, wealth, celebrity, sex, violence, drugs, we had none of those themes. This is not that kind of book. But I was approached by an agent at UTA [United Talent Agency] named Jasmine Lake who is fantastic, and she really saw something in it and she wanted to represent it. I have many friends who have had projects that stir flickers of interest, or even get optioned, and then nothing happens. It’s just crickets. So while I thought Jasmine was fabulous, I didn’t have very high expectations, [but] when Frances [McDormand] was interested — she’s also a UTA client — I thought, “Wow, if anybody could pull off a story like this, it’s probably her,” just knowing her work. So that happened before she’d seen “The Rider” by Chloe Zhao [the director of “Nomadland”] and decided this could be a really, really interesting pairing. And it took off from there.

I was a consulting producer and, in our case, that meant I deluged them with research and photos from when I was out there and some recordings and all sorts of B-roll and stuff that I didn’t get to use that I still thought was valuable. If you look at the screenplay, it opens with all of these old photos from Empire [Nevada] that didn’t happen in the actual film but that’s related to just a whole trove of photos that I dumped on them because I wanted to give them all the ingredients that I’d been hoarding in my kitchen so they could cook an amazing meal. And I knew it wasn’t up to me to pick the cuisine, but I knew Chloe’s previous work and I knew Frances’s, so I just gave them a lot of stuff. And I also made a lot of introductions. I introduced them to Linda and Swankie and Bob, I helped recruit extras for the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, so just a lot of little things like that.

RP: And what was it like watching the film for the first time?

JB: Incredibly moving. I think I realized immediately that I was possibly the least objective viewer of the film you could possibly imagine. The gentleman who hugs Frances [who plays Fern] in the first scene is somebody I first reported on in 2011. He worked at the Empire plant and owns that mini store and I’ve been talking to him for a decade and I’ve driven that drive so many times.

So I was deeply moved by the film, and also, just all these weird little flickers of déjà vu came over me. When Fern [Frances McDormand] cringes when somebody knocks on her door and tells [her] to move [her vehicle somewhere else], that really gave me flashbacks to being worried about getting rousted, thinking I was going to get “the knock,” just a lot of her experiences learning how to do this and coming into a different kind of community [with] a different way of doing things felt very familiar to me. So I was incredibly moved by it. I thought they did a wonderful job.

RP: So before you got into journalism, you worked as a Starbucks barista, a junior camp counselor, a waitress and more. What ultimately led to your path to journalism?

JB: It’s funny. When I was at Amherst — is there still a literary magazine called “A Further Room?”

RP: Not that I know of.

JB: Well, back in the day, that was kind of the main literary magazine, and I got involved with that and ended up running it and loved it. I was a lit mag nerd, even in high school. But I hadn’t really been exposed to narrative nonfiction, which has become a driving passion of mine. And I wish I’d come across it sooner. When I thought of the news, I thought of the AP Wire, I thought of breaking news, and I have done some of that in my career, but that’s not really what I’m passionate about. So I was an English [and] French major, studied abroad, thought linguistics were pretty cool.

I should have figured out that I wanted to do journalism when Amherst gave me this fellowship to go to South Africa for a month and do post-thesis research, whatever that means. I had never felt so engaged. I was out in the world. My job was to learn things and write about them, and it just was incredibly invigorating — I just felt incredible and it was so meaningful to me. And then I came back and I went to work at Scholastic. I had interned there — I was the intern who opened the box of Harry Potters that first arrived. I had just learned how to use a letter opener — I’m sure it looked like my little Harry Potter sword. I was working there, and it was okay. I liked reading manuscripts and making creative decisions, and we did all kinds of stuff from picture books to literary YA.

They were doing really high-quality stuff, stuff that we would bring in from other countries to expose American kids to the wider world of literature. So it was cool, but then 9/11 happened. I finished Amherst in 2000 and I remember standing in my bathtub and watching the second plane hit the World Trade Center and being just totally — I mean, I feel like everybody who was around got defibrillated in that moment. And I remember going back to work, and we were at Prince & Broadway, so one of the towers collapsed while I was down there and you could see it from the roof — things just got very real.

In the aftermath of that, I’d been doing a lot of thinking and I was kind of a young woman in a hurry, and I was in a place where everything was really seniority-based. So I was working and working and working and things felt slow and I just wanted to feel like I was doing something that would let me connect more deeply with the world and hopefully be helpful in some way. But I wanted to do something that seemed more immediate and also something where if I was a bit of a workaholic and a hustler, then that would actually help me rather than just eat my life and not pay any dividends at all. So I started going to grad school part-time. I was definitely afraid to quit my day job, so I started going to the journalism program at Columbia, and I just had this amazing experience. One of my first teachers is now my best friend and the co-parent of my dog. I got to do side work for the New York Times as a stringer and it was just transformative. We were joking that I was like a born-again journalist, so I really got into it and started reading narrative nonfiction. Also, when I moved to New York, suddenly I had friends who were journalists. This was a path that I just hadn’t really spent much time thinking about. But they were doing things that weren’t traditional newspaper journalism, and I think they helped me think more broadly about what journalism is and can be, because I think I had a pretty narrow idea that was not at all the full picture.

RP: Do you remember your favorite class at Amherst?

JB: There was an amazing class [taught by Barry O’Connell] called “Writing and Teaching” where we actually went and taught in a school in Holyoke and did a lot of reading about education … I also did a class with Andy Parker on literary theory. I know he’s not at Amherst anymore, but, oh my God, he was the best.

But I think Amherst was also more insular as a campus than it is now. For example, The Student kind of felt like a bubble — you know, [there might be a headline like] “We’re losing trays in the cafeteria!” or something. But now it seems like the interests of the student body are more expansive, which is really cool. So, I had a good time there, but I also felt kind of like I was in this bubble at times that I didn’t really know how to pop out of. But I think that culture has changed.

RP: This last question is probably one you get asked at least once a day as a journalism professor. Do you have any advice for storytellers-in-training or aspiring journalists?

JB: Go out and do it. If you need a side hustle to make it work, do that too. I know somebody who has some marketing job that he feels really embarrassed talking about and gets paid reasonable money to tweet about stuff from a fake account or something. But he just got a book deal for a really big-deal nonfiction project because he was putting gas in his tank one way and then doing his passion stuff in another.

I even think if you’re in-house somewhere and you’re not writing and you want to write, it’s almost better to do something, you just have to be doing it. That’s the biggest thing, and you have to be getting out of the office and, you know, doing the anti-Covid stuff — I think face-to-face is still pretty wonderful. And because the market is so weird right now, there are people who do that in so many different ways. I have friends at traditional newspapers, I have friends who are doing hybrid stuff, I teach part-time and do stuff, so I don’t think it’s always as obvious as it used to be.

But I think the biggest thing too, for me at least, was whenever I like a piece, I break it down. I’ve done really nerdy reverse outlines and I’m also really interested in where people’s ideas come from. So I’ll check out the Longform podcast or read things from them, just to be a better observer of the world around me. Because I feel like when you go to an interview or you meet an editor, the only thing people really care about is ideas. I have former students who come to town and say, “Hey, do you know any editors I could meet with and have coffee?” And, in my mind, I guess I don’t do that kind of networking. To me, it just feels not particularly substantial. I want to meet somebody when I’m really excited about an idea and I’m on fire about it and I want it to be contagious and I want them to catch it and, for me, that’s what has worked best.