Krysten Ritter on why the 'complete freedom' of writing Bonfire made for the perfect break from TV
The actress and novelist spoke to EW about her acclaimed literary debut
Krysten Ritter’s literary debut Bonfire came about in an unusual way.
Per the actress and now novelist, the mandated filming break between Jessica Jones and The Defenders gave her the time to dive head-first into an ambitious personal project. At first, she expected to take on a range of different, less demanding acting roles. “I was getting auditions or movie offers where it was always like, a stripper or a wife,” she reveals. “Nothing excited me enough.” From there, she reached out to her contacts in the publishing world with a pitch initially built for TV, and interest in Bonfire came high and fast.
Bonfire is centered on young environmental lawyer Abby’s return to her hometown of Barrens. She arrives to help expose a corporate conspiracy, but while there, she can’t help but dredge up old secrets and relationships and uncover long-buried secrets.
The book, out Tuesday, introduces Ritter as an exciting new voice. EW caught up with her by phone to get the story on the novel’s inspiration, how she drew from her own experiences growing up in a small town, and why the writing process gave her “complete freedom” in a way she could never experience on a film or TV set. Read on below, and order Bonfire here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did Bonfire come together?
KRYSTEN RITTER: I was coming up with a bunch of different story areas that I wanted to develop and pitch for a TV season through my company, Silent Machine. This was an area that I was always so interested in because of the setting — it’s similar to the setting where I’m from and felt very true to me — but I was really interested in just exploring the small-town subterfuge that happens. I wanted to have a crime set around a small town, everybody working together to cover it up.
What happened is I had my TV pitch ready to go. So I went into my agency and pitched them all of my ideas that I wanted to work on for the season. This was the one idea that was No. 1 for me. No. 1 on the pitch sheet. And they didn’t think that I would be able to sell it in the marketplace at that time. All of the networks always have a certain criteria that they’re looking for and marks that they want to hit. They thought because it had a parallel storyline featuring a teenage set that it would limit where we could take it out and pitch. They were kind of like, “Let’s focus our energies on this other thing.” I was like, “Well, okay, I really like this.”
It kind of worked out that I finished Jessica Jones season 1, and it was always built into the calendar that The Defenders was going at a certain time. So Jessica Jones 2 was going to go after The Defenders. I was given this really, really rare gift that actors very seldom get, which is, you’re going to be going to work, and you’re going to do two shows back to back, but you can’t work in television for the next 15 months.
Yeah! And I’d already had some connections in the publishing world a bit because I had written a book proposal a few years ago. So I was kind of in with that, and I had some people in the book world that I’d always been talking to about “Oh, if you ever find the right idea, we’d love to help you.” And so it kind of came about as, like, “Well, let me just pitch them this idea and write a proposal and see where we get from there.” It turned out to be really fun for me and it started to take every minute of my brain, every minute of my time. It felt like, sure, an act of defiance because my agent said it wouldn’t sell, but maybe also in terms of acting roles that I was looking at after Jessica Jones, it’s a really tough act to follow, with the depths that I get to go to and the psychological searching, uncovering what is required for that role — it’s so great, just an amazing role. So you come out the other end, and I was getting auditions or movie offers where it was always like, a stripper or a wife. Nothing excited me enough. But this idea and this book did. So I just started writing, and I got really disciplined. This one thing that I have, that I would never be scared to admit, is that I have a really good work ethic and really good discipline. I sat down every day and I started writing and writing and writing, and then we took the book proposal out. It ended up selling in a big way and it kind of just happened. I put all my time into it. It was a labor of love and also a way for me to kind of have a great part to work on.
Having that discipline is good for a novelist.
You need a good work ethic to get anything done, right? It’s so easy to be daunted by fear, daunted by just a heavy workload. Obviously, you have almost 300 pages to fill, it’s a lot. But every single thing takes a good work ethic.
One of the advantages of writing this character in a book versus in a show is that you really get to get inside of Abby’s head. She’s an unreliable narrator, in that her emotions are clearly animating and informing her descriptions. How did you conceive her as a character, versus a narrator guiding the reader?
I’d gone through a phase of reading all of the thrillers featuring complex women and unreliable narrators, and feeling really into that. I wanted to do that, too. I think it’s so cool when you’re reading a book and all of a sudden you’re like, “Oh wait, is she even telling the truth?” It’s kind of one my favorite things to uncover in reading a book. With Abby, obviously, she has issues: She abuses alcohol, she takes a pill when she shouldn’t. You don’t know what’s going on with her, you don’t know if she’s imagined all of this, you don’t know why. She’s repressed a lot of feelings in her past. That’s just the most fun part, getting inside her head and exploring how she got there, what she’s doing. That’s all the fun character work that I wanted to do, and find a lot of pleasure in.
How closely did you draw on your own experiences, being from a small town?
The book is definitely fiction and of course, once you start writing your imagination takes over, and things are embellished and grow and change, and are added when you get to the end — and you realize there’s so much more to fill in or go back through. I’ll totally admit that a lot of the scenes and the scenery are plucked right from my brain. There are some small little details that are taken straight from my actual life — like a deer being killed on the side of the road and the deer being picked up before your broken car. There’s images of Abby in the water at the local dam; that was all stuff that I brought to it from actual images in my head or games that I played with myself as a kid. There’s a lot of me in the book. But I’m not nearly as dark as Abby is — I’m a much more joyful person, and I guess if I was anything like Abby, I wouldn’t get anything done. But there’s definitely a lot of stuff, scenery-wise and texture-wise and in the details, that I brought to the book and have been carrying around with me my whole life.
In the same way, with an acting role too, you find your way in through personal experiences and personal feelings, and then kind of riff on them and grow and get lost in the imagination of it and the creativity of it. But I always use myself as a way in — it’s kind of how I work with anything.
And I would imagine as you’re writing scenes, it’s just a natural place to turn to.
Definitely. Literally! “Turn left, here, and this is what it looks like.”
Were there any authors or books that inspired you?
I was reading all of the hot thrillers of the time, and I really love Gillian Flynn and Mary Kubica. Right before this book, I read Before I Go to Sleep, I read The Good Girl, Sharp Objects—
That’s one book that Bonfire really reminded me of at times.
Sharp Objects is honestly one of my most exciting reading experiences. Everyone says, “Oh, I read this in a day.” Did you really? Maybe you read it in two days. But Sharp Objects, I really did read it in a day. I remember not putting the book down and walking into the kitchen with the book still in my hand, looking at it, trying to get a glass of water — my boyfriend’s like, “What are you doing?” I read it in a day! I just couldn’t put it down. That inspired me quite a bit.
You’re working off of that common device, of going home and uncovering those emotions.
It’s one of the original tropes, right? Going home and dealing with stuff. But it’s literal. Everybody has that, everybody knows what it’s like to go home and then regress and not be running from something, not like who you were when you were home. I think everybody relates to that. But even beyond the geography of going home, I think we all have things in the back of our mind that gnaw at us, and until you dig through the ashes and deal with it and rise up stronger than ever, we all have that shit. That’s stuff that I always like to talk about in life and explore in anything creative.
One distinguishing factor in your novel is the way you infuse corporate intrigue and make the coming home story partly political.
The corporate idea started because I’m from a farm in Pennsylvania, and at one point, a couple years back, the frackers were coming in. They want to frack on the land and they put it in a different package — this was even before that movie Promised Land came out, and before anybody really knew what was going on. They were kind of told, “Hey, we’re going to dig over here in the corner, and then it’s going to be great because then the gas prices will go down,” and then eight months later, after they’d do it, the gas prices do go down. And the people in the small town are like, “See? That was good. What they just did was good.” Not really realizing the environmental repercussions and just the taking advantage of people — because their lives would change with $4,000 or $5,000. That was something that’s frustrated me and was the nugget of the idea. People getting taken advantage of. I didn’t want the book to be too political, you know? I wasn’t trying to go in and make it red versus blue. I’m not trying to make it too message-y.
If you’d want to tackle another book, would you be interested in shaking up genres or sticking in this one?
I’d probably stay here, and I definitely do. It was a lot of work, yes. But there’s not much else that is this satisfying. It’s terrifying, yeah — it’s scary. But to have this fluid style and this complete freedom — obviously, there’s a huge team of editors who go in and rip things apart and put them back together and you’re like, “Ah, what’s happening?!” But just being able to not necessarily always be the face of something. Honestly, I really loved waking up every day in the morning, making a huge pot of coffee, and just diving in, and then maybe getting breakfast a few hours later. Just being in it, without the pressure of looking a certain way or being “on,” but still getting to express myself.
And I do a lot of different things. I’m an actress and I write and I produce stuff. I have a guitar and I have my knitting stuff. I have a lot of things going on; I love to not ever put all my energy into one thing fully. I like to chapter it up: Work for this for two years, then let’s go do Jessica Jones for two years. I definitely would love to do another book. It’s just about having that time — it’s key. I’ve already been thinking about ways to do, and themes that I want to continue on with. That’s already cooking.