It’s almost impossible to read Krysten Ritter’s debut novel, Bonfire, and not imagine the story’s protagonist, Abby Williams, as looking like Ritter and sounding like Ritter and even dressing like Ritter—or, at least, looking and sounding and dressing like Jessica Jones, the character Ritter inhabits so incredibly in the eponymous Netflix series. But you’d be forgiven for doing that—not least by Ritter, who told me, “I’m happy to draw comparisons to Jessica Jones or to other great messy women on screen because we need it”—because Abby is part of a storied tradition of complicated women whose psychic damage sometimes cripples them, and sometimes fuels their desire to do good in a bad world.
For Abby, that means going back to her hometown of Barrens, Indiana, a decade after she thought she’d left it firmly in her rearview mirror. And yet, Abby’s past is much closer than it might at first appear to her, something she quickly realizes when her law firm’s investigation into a local corporation’s potential malfeasance (it involves poisoning the town’s reservoir) becomes an investigation into a central mystery of Abby’s life, one involving the suspicious disappearance of her former best friend. It’s a classic suspense story—there are no shortage of plot twists and turns—and Abby’s sardonic, borderline nihilistic worldview is tempered by her clear desire to make things right for other people; Abby might feel like she’s seen too much of the world to ever have trust in it, but she wants to protect others from the same fate.
Ritter has had lots of experience playing complicated women like Abby (besides echoes of Jessica Jones, I spotted a little bit of her cultishly adored Don’t Trust the B---- in Apt 23 character, Chloe, in Bonfire; Abby’s icy exterior and deep inner life might also earn her the description of being “like a river in winter”), and perhaps that experience informed Ritter’s desire to put another strong female voice out into the world. Whatever the initial inspiration, fans of suspense thrillers will be happy she did so, because, with Bonfire, Ritter has written a taut narrative that hinges around a satisfyingly lurid mystery. More than that, though, Ritter has given readers the kind of unforgettable narrator, full of quirks and bad habits and emotions, who is relatable in the best possible ways. Abby is imperfect, yes, but so are we all, and yet, we all have to navigate through this life anyway, so it’s better to feel like we’re not doing it alone.
Below, I talk with Ritter about Bonfire, what her approach to writing the novel consisted of, and whether or not she will play Abby in a movie version of the book.
Did you always know you wanted to write a novel? What was the genesis of Bonfire?
Obviously, I work in film and television. I started reading a bunch of scripts, and I’m like, “Oh, I want to try this. I’m going to try and write a script, a pilot, a couple of pilots...” And we went out and shot them. Then I’m like, “Oh, I want to write a movie. Let me try this.” I always have a drawer of ideas, a bunch of stuff I’m working on at one time. That’s kind of what makes my world go round—storytelling and character development and character breaking down. And I went through this phase during Jessica Jones where I was reading a lot of books. Then I finished shooting Jessica Jones, and there was this idea that I’d been kicking around for a little while; I’d been reading all these books and seeing all these great characters and unreliable narrators, and I felt like my idea could be really good as a book. And then, I was given this rare gift that actors aren’t usually given: Jessica Jones finished and was getting a Season 2, but The Defenders was on the calendar for a different time, so Jessica Jones would come after. So I was given the gift of security and time. I was basically told, you’re going to do two shows back-to-back and work for 16 months straight.
Having that security of knowing that you’ll be okay and have stability for the foreseeable future is a huge gift for a creative person, so freeing.
I’m somebody who’s always working and always doing a million things, getting roles or whatever. But some for parts that weren’t that good, or not as good as Jessica Jones, which as far as I’m concerned is the best role in history.
I think that’s a fair assessment of that role. I think you’ve also really made it into what it is.
I’ve worked so hard on it, and it’s so fulfilling for me. Getting to build all that backstory... I do a lot of pounding and great work on it, and it brings me a lot of creative fulfillment.
What was your approach to writing Bonfire?
I started with my TV pitch because [Bonfire] was a TV pitch, and I just kept growing it and growing it from there. I wrote a book proposal, which is like 100 pages. It’s still not a whole book obviously, but it outlines what it’s going to be. And then, I kind of moved it around and workshopped it a bit, to see what kind of feedback I’d get, and people liked it. I got great responses, and I was like, “Holy shit, this is happening.” So the process was really about making it grow every day. And that could mean it grows a lot one day, and then the next day, it doesn’t grow as much. So it’s maybe a couple paragraphs, then an 11-page treatment, then a 20-page outline, the proposal, then outlining the rest of it on a cork board. I had one of those cork boards with index cards plotting it out, then realized, like, “Oh, I still have so much more to go.” Then adding in another story line and all those twists and turns on my cork board. Then I would break it down into chunks.
Maybe I’d work on the first three chapters for a long time and just go over them, go over them, go over them almost like they were a contained piece of material. And then I’d go on. And I’d always have my index cards and my cork board as my sort of guide. And then like throw some shit down, go back and rewrite. Throw some shit down, go back and rewrite, and tackle it that way. It’s a long time. It took two years to have the first full draft. It took six to eight months of rewriting. So the process is just one foot in front of the other. I’d get up every day, go on my computer, still in my jammies, and make a pot of coffee and just work on it at least until 5pm. Then maybe take a break. Then maybe go back to it at night depending on how I’m feeling. If you’re in the zone, you want to keep going and maximize that. And if you’re not in the zone, just try and kind of think of something. So that’s the nuts and bolt of the actual doing of it.
What you’re describing is this really organic process, but one that’s really dependent on having what you mentioned before, the gift of security and time.
Yeah, and making the time, too. Of course, things come up, you have other work obligations, you still have to make the time for yourself. And sometimes, you get real tired. So it’s a combination of all of those things—that magical moment when an idea comes to you, and you’re like, “Eureka! Let me jot this down as soon as possible!” And then it comes down to work ethic.
One thing I felt very strongly while reading this book was an immersion into the physicality of the characters. It all felt very directional. Do you think a visceral awareness of a character is something you bring from your acting experience?Yeah, I think it was something I brought to the table because I’m bringing my tools that I use when I’m building and breaking down characters. I love going deep. I love describing things, for any characters. I’ll do pages. For Abby, for example, to really get into her physicality, really get into the things she does. I feel like that stuff and the scenery is all kind of encrypted. It’s from my brain, from me. I think of it as my own feeling, and then it kind of extends from there into fiction and takes on its own life. Build on that, riff on that, and then you don’t even know what you started with. I kind of find my way in with how I feel in my own body. I’m glad that it resonated with you in that way and felt it. That stuff, the scenery, and the setting are from my brain, kind of where I’m from, what it looks like, and I just put it in this fictional space. So I think that’s what I brought, as an artist, that sort of digs deep into the psychology of what’s going on. I don’t know what the answers are, but I hope to identify feelings.
Abby is sort-of like an open wound of a person, or maybe barely healed, but returning to her hometown is just like ripping the scab off. The psychic damage Abby carries with her is, I think, going to draw a lot of comparisons to Jessica Jones in the sense that they’re both really strong women who went through incredibly difficult times and the way they’re dealing with it is not perfect maybe, but that’s okay. What do you think about the new visibility of complex women characters like this in pop culture?
A couple of years ago on screen and television, things start to shift in a big way. You start to see these complicated, messy women, and people are devouring them. We’re devouring them because there’s been a void and we see ourselves represented. All of us are complicated. All of us have shit that we run from, and when you become an adult, those methods for survival kind of don’t work anymore. And you have to go back, literally go back, and face these demons. That’s a theme that, I think, thematically women connect to. They connect to it, I connect to it, and that’s obviously what I’m exploring in the book. I’m happy to draw comparisons to Jessica Jones or to other great messy women on screen because we need it. We are all of those things. Everybody wants to be seen and represented and heard. Everybody wants to feel like they’re okay being really weird, different, or abnormal. So, Abby, she drinks when she shouldn’t, she’s a little OCD, she’s made some machinery out of counting things to get through. She holds her breath. She does all this weird shit. We all do weird shit. We all do weird shit. And I think people are starting to see, like, “Wait a minute, my stuff isn’t that weird.” We’re all going through this. We all feel this. And I think it has to do with why we’re seeing such a big cultural shift. The more messy women that are put on screen and in books, the more we can be heard and relate and feel okay about it.
It’s so important to have these characterizations out there and keep more of them coming. On that note, are you working on another novel now?
I actually am. I have ideas, and I’ve been jotting down little scene window ideas. I’m always kind of doing that. I have an idea for scene or character windows that I’ll jot down, keep organized, and use later. Sometimes I’ll be like, “Oh, I can just copy and paste this whole section.” It’s about banking an idea of catalogs when you have them, and I also really loved working on the book. And I love that I now have it in my hands and I’m really interested in where Abby goes next. Maybe it’s not really Abby, but that emotional life. What’s next in the emotional life of someone who goes back and deals with something, overcomes it, and now is ready for the next thing. I’m 35, that’s been my life. Dealing with what’s next. So I’d like to keep following her emotional journey. That’s something that interests me, and I hope to have the time to do it. I’m not putting any time pressure on myself, but it’s something I love to do and can see myself doing. It’s an awesome way to be creative and also not have to leave your house.
Have there been any thoughts or talk about making this into a movie?
Would you play Abby?
Maybe, maybe not. On the one hand, I’m like, maybe I’ll play her. We’ll see how everything plays out. I’m so excited that there’s even interest in that. That’s really exciting to me. I can see it. As far as I’m concerned, it exists in my mind, and I’d love to see it on screen as well. So we’ll kind of see how it plays out.
Bonfire is out today, and available for purchase here