This long-form journalist shares how the “positive disruption” of her Bellagio residency led to the completion of her award-winning book, Nomadland.

Jessica Bruder is an American long-form journalist specializing in narrative non-fiction. In 2016, Jessica was in residence at Bellagio, where she wrote parts of her book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (2017) about older Americans who, as a result of the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009, adopted transient lifestyles, traveling around the United States in search of seasonal work. The book was adapted into a film that won the Golden Lion at the 2020 Venice Film Festival and went on to win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress at the 93rd Academy Awards, 2021.

To develop my projects, I go out into the world and immerse myself in the lives of strangers. I believe the best way to learn someone’s story is to walk alongside them for a while. That way, you can share a faithful account of their experience – not just factually, but also with emotional truth.

I had never been a resident fellow anywhere when I applied to the Bellagio Center in 2016, so I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I was accepted. During my stay at the villa, I worked on the book that became Nomadland, which grew from a cover story I’d written for Harper’s magazine, in August 2014. By the time I finished the book, I’d become so absorbed in the world of the story that stepping away was hard. I’d spent nearly three years following the people I wrote about, including Linda May, who was at the heart of both the magazine piece and the book (and later landed a starring role in the movie). By the time I arrived at Bellagio I’d finished most of my reporting. I needed space to reflect and write.

I remember one fellow, Carlos Santiso, saying, “You have to overcome the beauty of Bellagio before you can actually get any work done.” When I asked him how anyone could manage that in such an enchanted place, he had no answer. So, I ended up dodging the beauty by doing much of my writing at night. When I was reporting Nomadland, living on the road in my van, I rarely got any writing done because I was, literally, too close to my subject. Bellagio gave me the opportunity to work uninterrupted – it established a sense of continuity in my writing process, which I like to think of as a positive disruption.

Entering unfamiliar spaces usually helps me see more clearly. Bellagio felt like a new world, populated with brilliant, fascinating fellows – all of them working in different disciplines – who were eager to share ideas, camaraderie, and the occasional dance party. Everyone was so accomplished that it was intimidating at first; I felt like a kid who accidentally got seated at the grown-ups’ table. But the mood was so warm and generous. I’ll never forget my first night, meeting fellow resident Donald B. Verrilli, who’d served as President Obama’s Solicitor General, winning Supreme Court cases involving civil rights, marriage equality, and other issues I’m passionate about. Don walked up and asked, “So how’s Linda May?” I remember thinking, “Oh my God, he read the magazine story.” (Later on, I told Linda and she was blown away, too.)

Bellagio was my first experience living in that kind of community. Since then, I’ve been granted a number of fellowships and I believe my time at the Center paved the way for that to happen. Even though my stay was more than six years ago, I’m still in touch with most of my fellow fellows, via Zoom but also in person. We started as colleagues but became a family of friends. When I was on the book tour for Nomadland, I stayed in Los Angeles at the home of Paula Daniels, who does path-breaking work in food justice. When Manil Suri, an amazing novelist and mathematician, visits New York with his husband Larry, my partner and I always meet them for dinner. I never imagined our circle would endure this way.  It bolstered me during my month and still does today.

  • Bellagio’s spirit of expansiveness and inclusiveness followed me home. My experience there helped me open up and share my work with people from other disciplines, something our cohort keeps doing as a group.
    Jessica Bruder

So, the best thing I took from the Center was a lasting community. Something else I came away with, in a more concrete sense, is this very cool coffee mug, whose lid doubles as a saucer. It still keeps me company on late writing nights!  [Picture]

Right now, I’m working on a new book, following grassroots and underground mutual aid networks that have been in overdrive since June, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Constitutional right to an abortion. The book is rooted in a story I wrote for The Atlantic called ‘The Abortion Underground,’ which came out in April and followed covert efforts to prepare for the widespread loss of abortion access. The people I met while reporting for the magazine were so creative, resilient, and inspiring that when the Court handed down its decision, I couldn’t step away from what they were doing.

My month at Bellagio seeded a community. It ignited friendships I treasure and a lively, cross-disciplinary exchange of ideas that will enrich my work for years to come.

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Jessica’s recommendation: All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, a film by Laura Poitras about the activism of photographer Nan Goldin. It’s a cinematic declaration of the power of community and love to face down brutality, greed, and pain.

To find out more about Jessica’s work, you can visit her website. You can also read her 2022 piece in The Atlantic, titled “The Future of Abortion in a Post-Roe America.”

(Photo: Todd Gray)