The writer discusses her 2017 book and working alongside Frances McDormand and Chloé Zhao
Before it became a frontrunner in this year’s Academy Award race for Best Picture, Nomadland was adapted from a 2017 book. The work was meticulously reported by Jessica Bruder, who did a stint at an Amazon warehouse and lived in a 19-foot, 2-ton van she named Halen, to capture the lives of a growing group of Americans.
In her book, Bruder writes about the “new nomads” who have uprooted themselves, seeing their job opportunities dry up as they grew older, unable to keep pace with rising housing prices, while their savings were decimated during the Great Recession.
There are folks like David, a former community college chemistry teacher, who was forced to prematurely cash out his pension during a divorce. And then there’s Linda May, who’d worked her entire life but wouldn’t be able to survive on her Social Security benefits alone. (Linda was one of several real-life nomads to appear in the film after Bruder introduced them to director Chloé Zhao.)
They fill the ranks of Amazon’s CamperForce, mobile labor pools working temporary gigs at the company’s warehouses, or harvesting beets in North Dakota, or tending campgrounds at national parks, Bruder writes. They find community in places like Quartzsite, Arizona, where they gather annually to celebrate the nomadic lifestyle.
Nomadland was published in 2017, and caught the attention of award-winning actress Frances McDormand, who optioned the book and stars in the film.
“She was as fascinated by the subculture as I was, and also interested in what it says about America,” said Bruder, who would become a consulting producer on the film.
We spoke to Bruder about the three years she spent reporting this story, the growing number of nomads and what it was like to work on the adaptation.
KCM: What first drove you to write this book?
Jessica Bruder: I was reading a story about work in an Amazon warehouse and in it, someone approached the reporter and said, I live in an RV full-time and I work here because I can’t afford to retire and there’s a whole program for people like us. When I read that, I couldn’t even read the rest of the story, I was just captivated by the idea that there would be a whole program for a group of people that I didn’t realize were out there.
When I started looking into it, it turned out there were many programs for them all over the country, doing all sorts of jobs. When I was growing up, I always thought RVers were pensioners who were out to see nature and just chill out. This really challenged that idea. So I wanted to know more.
In your reporting, you immersed yourself in this subculture, living in a van yourself. Can you talk a bit about that?
I bought a 1995 GMC Vandura camper van conversion and named it Halen. This thing was 19 feet long. Living in it was often great, and sometimes harrowing. The great part about it was having this exoskeleton that you could take with you everywhere you went and just have a sense of bringing home with you. The hard stuff was just driving a massive vehicle, which I hadn’t done before. I fried my anti-lock break sensors coming downhill from a reporting trip, I remember backing into a boulder. And there were nights when I was pretty cold, and sometimes the van broke down and I had to deal with that.
There were a lot of pros and some cons. I would absolutely do it again. I hope to get back to my van, which is currently stranded in a friend’s backyard in Reno, when I can.
A lot of the issues that you write about in the book, which was released in 2017, still exist today. Can you give us a sense of the current state of this subculture? Are there more people who are living on the road?
Anecdotally, the population has grown a lot and continues to grow, though nobody keeps an exact figure. I can tell you that when I went undercover with Amazon’s CamperForce program, it was only active in four locations. I’ve seen the map for 2021 and it’s now active in 24 locations. So if that’s any indicator, we’ve seen a lot of growth.
In the book you break down how the Great Recession led in part to the rise of this group of nomadic Americans. What do you think is behind this more recent surge?
I believe the population is growing because we continue to see displacement in America related to ongoing income inequality, which hasn’t been addressed. Wages in many places are still flat while the cost of housing has been rising. And on top of that, we have a pandemic that threatens to displace a whole new wave of people.
When did you first learn that there was an interest in making your book into a movie?
In September of 2017, I was on the road for a little book tour on the West coast and in L.A. I got a call from a fantastic woman at UTA, United Talent Agency, that they had taken an interest in the book.
I was actually driving my 19-foot van and I had to parallel park it in front of her at this coffee shop, which was embarrassing, but she really got the book and wanted to represent it. And I figured nothing would come of that, because I have many friends who are journalists who’ve had interest in their work and not seen anything evolve out of that. But lo and behold, Frances McDormand took an interest and she and Peter Spears went ahead and optioned it a few months later.
Have you spoken to Frances McDormand? What struck her about your work?
From what I can tell, she was as fascinated by the subculture as I was, and also interested in what it says about America.
You’re listed as a producer on the film. Can you tell me what kind of involvement you had in developing this?
I was a consulting producer on the film. So what I did was throw as much of my research that hadn’t made it into the book at the film team. And I was a fixer. I introduced them to a lot of people, from Linda May, to the man Frances McDormand hugged in the first scene — he was somebody I met in Empire, Nevada back in 2011 for a story.
I was also on set for the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous recreation, which was crazy because the real thing was actually happening nearby and was much larger. I don’t think I show up anywhere as an extra, but I am playing guitar in a scene when the nomads are singing “On the Road Again.”
A couple of the subjects in your book have pretty major roles in the film. How did that come together?
I remember when Chloé asked me if I thought Linda May would be good on camera. And I said, as a writer I’m not sure what that means. She was an amazing person to write about, because she didn’t change if I was interviewing her. She didn’t put it on for me. Whether she was talking to me, her daughter, a clerk at the grocery store, she was still the same person, she wasn’t trying to create an impression. I thought that was pretty great. I hoped it would carry over onto camera, and I do think it did.
So I introduced Chloé to Linda, Swankie was there and was camped out near Linda when Chloé went to visit.
Did Linda May have any sort of acting experience or lessons?
Not at all. If you told Linda back when I meet her at the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous back in 2014 that not only would she be a main person in a magazine story that would lead to a book, that would lead to her being cast in a movie based on reality, co-starring with Frances McDormand, I think she would have had a heart attack.
Do you think the film reflects what you were trying to capture in the book?
Books and films are entirely different experiences, so I think it reflects some of it. I did feel so much deja vu when I first watched the film. It was really amazing. I think it captured incredibly powerful emotions and definitely some experiences that are common to people on the road.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Written and reported by Rachel Uda.