Jessica Bruder, NOMADLAND

Jessica Bruder, NOMADLAND

“One of my great hopes for the movie and for the book is that when people have been inside a different experience, that when they look at people, they’ll wonder what those people have to say in terms of what their story is rather than just trying to kind of slot them in this American caste system.” Zibby is joined by journalist, author, and screenwriter Jessica Bruder to talk about her book, Nomadland, and its recent Best Picture Golden Globe-winning movie adaptation. Jessica tells Zibby about living on the road, her career in journalism, and why she thinks we need to change the conversation around homelessness and houselessness.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jessica. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Jessica Bruder: Thank you for having me, Zibby. It’s good to be here.

Zibby: Congratulations on all the success of Nomadland, the movie coming out to such acclaim, the fact that you wrote it. The whole accomplishment in and of itself is amazing. It’s a fantastic book, as you well know, so much research, so much time. Do you ever want to drive again after this whole experience, or are you ready to take off on the road?

Jessica: Yes.

Zibby: Yes?

Jessica: After quarantine, you better believe it. My camper van named Halen is currently stranded in my friend’s backyard in Reno. I hear it’s been savaged by field mice there. I can’t wait to spend a day with a Shop-Vac getting it ready to get out on the road again.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. What was it like at the beginning? I know you started this off just as a smaller piece when you were investigating the subculture of nomadic Americans essentially adapting to today’s times. When did you know you had something just really big on your hands? What was it like? How did you get immersed in the culture? Tell me the story of how it became the book it is today.

Jessica: It started out with a girl and a tent and a rental car. There was no camper van. I was doing a story for Harper’s Magazine. They had offered to put me up in a hotel for two nights in this town, Quartzsite, Arizona, which figures heavily in the book and the movie. I figured, you know, I’m not going to get anything in two nights. This isn’t the kind of story you can parachute into. It’s not a quick hit. I borrowed a tent. I stayed out in the desert for a couple weeks and just talked to people. I was near some people who were living in a school bus. I ended up getting taken by somebody else I had met to an event called the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous where van-dwellers were doing all sorts of sell/shares. The world really opened up. When it came out in Harper’s, it was exciting. It was the first time I’d written for them. It was on the cover. I felt like I’d barely scratched the surface. I had so many more questions. I was not remotely tired of the reporting, so I was thrilled when I had the chance to make it into a book and get back out there, this time in a van, following up on some of these stories that I felt like I’d only just started to understand.

Zibby: Where did you end up on how Amazon treats employees? I’m just curious. There was a huge article in the paper yesterday in The New York Times about regulation on how Amazon treats employees and everything. After all of the camp allusions to it, where did you fall on that spectrum? Just wondering.

Jessica: The big picture here, which more people need to talk about, I think, is that we have a horrible problem with monopolies in the US. We have anti-trust laws that have not kept up with the times, that have not been enforced. We have a national labor relations board that’s been weakened, and OSHA. There’s no oversight right now. We’ve created this system where it’s winner take all. Companies can do whatever they want. People seem constantly surprised that that doesn’t always lead to the best labor conditions. I really think we need to look at this from the top if we want to get anything done. I was in there doing , I actually did a short film that . It’s tough. I’m glad that people are paying more attention to it now even though the union drive in Alabama didn’t make it.

Zibby: How was it going back and assembling all this research? All the time you spent on the road, all the amazing characters who you really painted so fully, completely realistic — I know they were based on real people. I’m sorry, I keep stuttering on my words today. I don’t know what my problem is. Anyway, tell me about the writing process itself of this book. How did you take so much time and data and experience and people and then convert it into a highly readable, engrossing work?

Jessica: Oh, my god, it was completely crazy making, is what I’ll start with admitting. I call my writing process building a sandcastle with tweezers. I don’t think it’s really the best way to write, but it’s how I do it. I’m slow and meticulous. Some people shovel and then go back to sculpt it later. I tweeze. For me, it was all about deciding that I wanted to follow this one woman, Linda May. Then that would be the backbone of the story. Everything else would kind of be like ribs coming off of it. For me, she was the guide. Then I could take side trips with other characters. I could put in a bit of my own undercover and investigative reporting. Hopefully, the reader could hang onto the ride because they had one person they were following all the way through. That was how I tried to do it, at least.

Zibby: Did you feel this sense of coming full circle when Linda May was actually in the movie then as well? What is her life like now?

Jessica: Linda’s doing great. I last saw her at the premiere in Los Angeles, which was surreal. It was outside at the Rose Bowl with ash falling from the sky. She’s doing great. She’s really excited by the success of the movie. We still talk all the time. I’m glad that she feels good about it too. Seeing her on screen and getting her story heard and feeling validated, that’s been incredibly moving for me too as a writer.

Zibby: How do you think more people can shift from this homeless to houseless dichotomy that you discuss in the book? The people here, it’s completely intentional. They have made the choice to be in their vans or wherever they’ve chosen to live. Yet the problem of homelessness is so pervasive. I feel like it’s a difference of perspective in some part. There’s also this community behind the people who are living this camper lifestyle. Tell me a little more about that.

Jessica: A lot of people I met on the road, while they’d chosen to be there, had also found that they couldn’t stay in traditional housing because of so many economic and social forces, whether it’s flat wages and rising rents or the failure of retirement finance. It’s a pretty complex and nuanced situation. In terms of the word homeless, it has become such a dirty word in American society. I remember reading a newspaper story not long ago. There was a picture. It said, “Homeless man looks at shirt,” or whatever it was. I was thinking, this is a person with a name. One of my great hopes for the movie and for the book is that when people have been inside a different experience, that when they look at people, they’ll wonder what those people have to say in terms of what their story is rather than just trying to kind of slot them in this American caste system. For me, that’s what I hope comes out of it. Does that make sense?

Zibby: Of course it does. That seems to be such an overarching theme of trying to figure out who people really are, asking questions, not taking things at face value no matter what the situation is. Everybody has books’ worth of stories inside them. Just because somebody is in dire straits — those stories are probably much more interesting anyway. I feel like there’s this American shorthand of how we judge everybody. Without asking the right questions, it’s hard to get to the bottom of it.

Jessica: I love Rebecca . She likes to say it’s our job to make things more complicated rather than less. I really like that idea about what writers and writing can do, that it might actually be our jobs to honor the complexity out there in the world rather than try to just reduce it. I’m into that.

Zibby: What have you been working on since?

Jessica: I’ve been working on a magazine story and some pitches and teaching. I can’t really talk about the specifics right now because they’re not out in the world. Because I work in nonfiction, that means the things I’m writing about are out there all the time and available to everybody, so I’m going to just keep it a little quiet. Thank you for asking.

Zibby: No problem. Thank you for not answering. Did you always want to do this with your life? Did you set out to be a reporter, journalist, author? Is this what you wanted when you were little?

Jessica: I’ve always loved writing, but I don’t think I knew I would want to do it this way. The way journalism lets you go out and be a constant learner and explore the world is incredibly exciting. Writing is something I’ve always loved to do. For me, it’s a really good match, but I didn’t see it coming. It wasn’t until after college when I had some friends who were journalists and saw what they were up to that I really became intrigued with that.

Zibby: What advice would you give to aspiring journalists if you could go back to telling yourself something back in the college days?

Jessica: Get out there and keep pushing. Get out there. Get curious. Ask yourself what it is that makes you curious about certain things because you want to be writing the kind of stuff you’d want to read. If you can get a sense for your own, again, what draws you to certain subjects in the world and where they might resonate with other people, I think you’ll have a good radar for going after stories.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s always a good thing to write what you want to read. Otherwise, how will you even know if it’s good?

Jessica: Exactly. You don’t want to read it anyway. Editing will be horrible because you’ll have to read it.

Zibby: I don’t want to read this thriller. Why did I write it?

Jessica: Who wrote this?

Zibby: Do you miss the characters you met along the way? Do you ever long for that lifestyle yourself?

Jessica: Do I miss them? Yeah, but I also talk to them all the time, which is kind of . Everybody’s on Facebook. I think that’s why I’ve still kept my Facebook profile, just because I talk to them that way. Do I miss it? I like dipping in and out of it very much. I’m grateful that I get to do that. I’m happy to be home. You can’t see it, but I’ve got more plants that you can shake a leafy stick at. I’ve got a dog. I’m kind of nested in here, but I love being out on the road. I love just getting behind the wheel of the van and seeing places and people that, as somebody who grew up in the Northeast, still feel fresh and new to me. A little bit of both is what I like.

Zibby: Awesome. Amazing. Thank you, Jessica. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” for this short chat about your book and the movie and everything else. Thank you.

Jessica: Thanks for having me, Zibby.

Jessica Bruder, NOMADLAND

Nomadland by Jessica Bruder

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