A Steady Diet of Low Expectations: A Conversation with Jessica Bruder, Author of “Nomadland”

April 23, 2021   •   By Judith Freeman

THREE YEARS AGO, when Jessica Bruder, the author of the Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, published her nonfiction account of the growing tribe of nomads roaming the American West, people who live in their vans or cars or RVs and work seasonal jobs to get by, she couldn’t have known that her book would end up as a movie, directed by Chloé Zhao and starring Frances McDormand, one that is not only sweeping up awards but has also been embraced by a great cross-section of viewers who are enthralled by its generous and moving portrait of humanity. Not that Bruder’s book didn’t get a lot of attention when it first came out: it ended up on half a dozen of the best book lists of 2017. At the time, Rebecca Solnit said of Nomadland, “People who thought the 2008 financial collapse was over a long time ago need to meet the people Jessica Bruder got to know in this scorching, beautifully written, vivid, disturbing (and occasionally wryly funny) book.”


What Solnit recognized was that the revelatory story Bruder had told, of the people she had met while living for months at a time in a van and traveling with them, was a story very much of the moment, a tale of a tipping point, where more and more Americans, especially the elderly and the working class who are no longer able to afford traditional housing, have taken to the road, living in their vehicles. The film has been called a gorgeous elegy for life after the American Dream: it asks what is it that we really need to make a life that contains joy and meaning, and also what it means to be human in a country where one man, Jeff Bezos, holds more wealth than 39 percent of all Americans put together. Bezos’s behemoth, Amazon, has a significant part to play in the story, as do the stunning landscapes of the American West. I recently had a long phone conversation with Jessica Bruder, who spoke to me from her home in Brooklyn, in which we discussed both the book and the film. The following is a part of our conversation.


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JUDITH FREEMAN: How did this book get its start?


JESSICA BRUDER: The origin story? I’m fascinated with subcultures and what Armistead Maupin called “logical,” rather than biological families. I’m also interested in how labor grapples with the digital era in a country where antitrust laws haven’t kept up. And I read a lot. Sometimes these interests all intersect. There was one Mother Jones cover story that fascinated me. The reporter went undercover in an Amazon warehouse and what got me was a couple of sentences. Someone working a seasonal job there told the reporter, “Yeah, I live in a RV full-time, I can’t afford to retire and there’s a whole program for people like me.” I thought, What?!! I remember searching online and learning that it wasn’t just Amazon offering these jobs. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of openings aimed at people who live in RVs. I’m a journalist. I’m curious. I started looking into it.


The landscape of the American West, those gorgeous open vistas we see in Chloé Zhao’s film, has such an important part to play in Nomadland. Wallace Stegner famously said that the American West is about space, and the East is about place. I think the West is also about movement — it always has been — and the East is about settlement. It does seem that without the vast public spaces of the West — the state and federal lands, forests and national parks and desert areas, the van living you have documented would not have worked for the people the way it has.


It’s absolutely true. I grew up in New Jersey, the most densely settled state in America, and I think that’s a reason I’m drawn to the wide-open spaces out West. They’re more conducive to exploring and moving around, and also to van living. And geography matters. I was just talking to a journalist from Japan who told me about her country’s aging population, what challenges they face. But people there aren’t moving into vehicles. Part of that is shaped by culture, part by geography. Mobile living is a hack that doesn’t work everywhere. The West is one place it can.


Have you spent a lot of time in the West?


Well, I lived in Portland for about two years, working as a staff writer for the local newspaper, The Oregonian. And I love visiting my friends in California. I get out there whenever I can, because I love the West. I love how big nature is, how sprawling, all of it.


Bob Wells, a guru for many nomads who you interview in your book and who plays himself in the film (as do several of the other nomads featured in your book) started a popular website for RV dwellers and also wrote a book, How to Live in a Car, Van, or RV — And Get Out of Debt, Travel, & Find True Freedom, believes: first of all, people want freedom. Did you find this to be true?


What is freedom? It’s a vague idea, one that makes certain assumptions. Are we talking about freedom from, or freedom to? It makes me think of anti-maskers who demand the freedom to go bare-faced. But freedom for me means not having to inhale their respiratory droplets. People on both sides of an issue can say they want freedom, when they actually want entirely different things. So it’s not that simple.


Most van dwellers seem to have chosen the life they have only after suffering economic or personal hardships, but there is the sense that they have also found freedom.


That’s complicated. Bob Wells moved into a van after he got divorced and could no longer afford an apartment. When he talks about freedom, part of it is freedom from paying rent, utilities, all that. For some people, it’s liberating to step off the economic treadmill. We’re told work hard and you’ll get ahead, but that’s rarely true nowadays. People are working multiple jobs but still can’t afford the basic necessities. It’s not like the middle class of the past. We’re in a different world. So if the idea of escaping the dominant paradigm — if that is freedom — it shows oppressed people some feel by that system. Of course, there’s a kind of freedom on the road, but it comes with other challenges. You can find yourself one broken axle away from homelessness. And in America, “homeless” has become a caste signifier, a stigma. It’s no longer a word that means what it claims to mean. On the road, if you have a major breakdown, it’s not just your car. It’s your home, too.


Downwardly mobile older Americans is the demographic in your book and the film, a group that has grown with alarming speed in recent years. A recent poll you quote in your book suggests that Americans now fear outliving their assets more than they fear dying. Seniors are getting hit particularly hard right now, by the economy as well as by COVID-19. Isn’t it disproportionately elders who have taken to the road and are living in vans and RVs?


Yes, what I saw was mostly an aging white population. But remember, I was doing my research from 2013 through 2016, when this was a smaller movement. And I did meet people of all ages out there. After all, younger people are facing many of the same economic strictures older people are dealing with — flat wages and higher costs of housing — along with a lack of job opportunities, student debt, etc. It’s becoming harder for people of all ages to provide for basic necessities. Our biggest expense by far is housing. Some people look at cutting that out as freedom. Or relief.


What has it come to in a society when so many people cannot afford housing anymore — the most basic of human needs? Soul-sucking and poor-paying jobs that can’t even get you a roof over your head? I live in rural Idaho, where I see a lot of van dwellers on the move, using the national forests and other federal lands as places to dwell temporarily, and in some very beautiful natural settings. I also spend a lot of time in Los Angeles and the last time I was there in October I saw how the level of urban homelessness had gotten so much more extreme, including the number of people living in their cars, and I thought, “Only some radical reimagining of society can fix this.” Do you feel that way?


I do feel that way, though I often wonder how hard things have to get before change happens. Humans have this amazing ability to normalize things. It’s one of the reasons we haven’t done enough on climate change. There’s that expression with the frog in a pot, how it doesn’t object to getting boiled slowly. Slow-burning problems get ignored. People are better at coping with the aftermath — while regretting that we didn’t do more to preempt disaster. We do this over and over. I hope we can start preempting a bit, rather than just coping.


Talk to me about Amazon … it’s a big part of the story of Nomadland.


Amazon has benefited from years of toothless antitrust legislation, along with complacency from OSHA (the government agency overseeing workplace conditions) and the National Board of Labor Relations. Without any meaningful oversight, the company gets to set its own terms, and that’s terrible for workers. Meanwhile, people are willing to ignore all that in the name of low prices. Part of me wonders, “What do we expect? And what do we deserve?” Our country built the jungle in which Amazon is the biggest predator. We’re complicit in that and, if we want a different ecosystem, it’s time to build one. What if we decided lowest prices weren’t the most important thing? How radical would that be!


Bob Wells talks about “Living happily with less through wheel estate.” I think a lot of us feel oppressed by our belongings — how we just can’t cram one more sweater into the drawer. One can’t help but feel that the “rubber trampers” have freed themselves from the crushing burden of stuff. Linda May, a remarkably kind and appealing older woman who plays a big role in your book and also the film, says she “just can’t believe how much garbage people cram into their short lives.” One gets the idea, as someone has said, that life can no longer be this sordid scrimmage for possessions.


We’ve spent so long accumulating stuff and talking about consumer choice as a metric of freedom. Now we’re talking about freedom from … all that stuff. We got what we wanted, right? Fifty-seven channels and nothing on. Lots of Americans have iPhones, but they still can’t get good health care. I mean, we’re relying on GoFundMe for medical bills…? I feel we’re in the era of “Let them eat iPhones”!


Like let them eat cake! I love that.


It’s sad how devices have hijacked our urges.


The elderly women you got to know doing your research, like Linda May and Swankie, the widows and divorcees and single women living in their vans, have found a measure of safety and dignity among the tribe of nomadic van dwellers they’ve joined. They’re strong, capable women who look out for each other. Compassionate friendship is a theme in your book, as it was in Chloé Zhao’s previous film, the astonishingly wonderful The Rider, with its extraordinarily tender scenes between two young rodeo riders who are friends and who both suffer life-changing injuries. Talk to me about the quality of friendships and sense of community among the nomads you met.


I met amazing people and saw fierce bonds between them. People who had very little, in a material sense, were incredibly generous with each other. There’s a George Orwell quote I like to go back to, about how so many qualities that we like best in the human character — like creativity and courage — are activated by adversity. We wouldn’t wish certain types of adversity on anyone, but at the same time they seem to bring out the best in people. I was living downtown in New York City after 9/11 and people were kinder to each other than I’ve ever seen, or seen since. It makes me crazy — why do humans have to experience so much pain, just to treat each other the way we always should? After all, so much of what is important in life happens in the connections between us. There’s the old American myth of self-sufficiency, of course, but that needs to go away. If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it’s that we have to get out some things together if we’re going to get out of them at all.


Did it surprise you that the book became a film? And such a wonderful and important one that’s being embraced across such a wide spectrum of viewers and a contender to win the Oscar? I feel like it’s been a long time since a film struck such a deep chord among so many disparate groups of people.


Did it surprise me? Absolutely! I have many friends who write nonfiction books. Sometimes their work gets optioned for film, then years go by and nothing gets made. Knowing that, I tried to keep myself on a steady diet of low expectations. That made every step of the journey a surprise. I always felt like these road stories were important — that’s why I spent three years immersed in them — and it’s great to see them find such a wide audience.


I admired that the “politics” of the people you met didn’t find a place in either the book or the film, at a time when the country seems so divided that this was about all that gets discussed. It wasn’t about who the nomads supported in elections, or what their religious or cultural views were, though it would be easy to assume they might have been conservative, the kind of older, largely white working-class folks who might have supported Trump. Did you have to make a conscious effort to steer clear of discussing such topics when you were researching your book? Or was that not an issue? The feeling in the book and the film is that you (and by extension the fictional Fern, played by Frances McDormand) were there to observe rather than judge or explain.


When the book came out, reporters asked me questions like this. They wanted to know if the subculture I’d written about belonged to what we’d been told was an undifferentiated mass of pissed-off white people who voted for Trump. But that’s not what I saw on the road. I did my reporting during the Obama administration. It was a very different time. I didn’t meet people who were raging about politics, on either side. There’s only one person from the book who I’m certain voted — and she voted for Hillary. Some of the people I met seemed almost “post-political,” in that they had stepped outside the system and didn’t expect much from it, no matter who sat in the Oval Office. It was all “same hand, different puppet.”


Speaking of white people, I’m not the first to note the lack of racial diversity among the people described in Nomadland or portrayed in the film. Part of the explanation you give for this is the fact campers have not traditionally been people of color (national park use statistics bear this out). There’s also the fact that “traveling while Black” hasn’t always been the easiest thing to do in America.


The dangers of traveling while Black are real. While I was working on the book, every week seemed to bring a new, horrifying headline about an unarmed Black motorist getting shot. Meanwhile, the one time I got pulled over — I think this was in the Midwest — the officer let me go with a warning and a bunch of tips for regional sightseeing. Talk about white privilege. The guy did everything but hand me tourist brochures. If I were a person of color, would I have gotten that kind of welcome? Doubtful. At the same time, getting pulled over made me incredibly anxious. I remember feeling relieved when he walked away. No one wants a cop searching their van.


The current plague of homelessness has sometimes been compared to the Depression and the Dust Bowl crisis of the 1930s that created waves of migrants hitting the road and living in “Hoovervilles.” But the era we are in is different, you write. There isn’t the same hope the “Okies” had among van dwellers that their self-worth is tied to some return to the “system” and stability. Rather Bob Wells and other wayfarers he inspired see things differently: they envision a future where economic and environmental upheavals have become “the new American norm.” To them, nomadic life isn’t some “quick fix” to tide people over to better times but more like a “wandering tribe creating a parallel world.” Is this how you see it? And will the film make more people want to join the nomads in their peripatetic life?


I’m honestly not sure. Van dwelling has been growing for years now, but it exists in this ecosystem that doesn’t have an unlimited carrying capacity. There’s already some hostility in cities, a lot of NIMBYism, more and more laws making it harder to live out of a vehicle. And when evictions start happening again on the other side of the pandemic, more vehicles may become shelters of last resort. I don’t know that the film will make more people want to hit the road. Hopefully it can help create empathy for the people already there. And maybe, in some subtle way, the film will encourage conversations about how we can make a better society, what that might look like.


About making it work for the many, rather than the few, and how we’re going to live in ever-more catastrophic times, both in terms of the environment as well as the economy?


Yes. It has everything to do with these questions.


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Judith Freeman is the author of a collection of stories and several novels, including The Chinchilla Farm (W.W. Norton) and Red Water (Pantheon Books). Her most recent book is the nonfiction work The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved (Pantheon, 2007). Her new novel, Macarthur Park (Pantheon Books), is coming out in October.