Krysten Ritter made a name for herself by portraying some of the fiercest female characters in pop culture history. It should come as no surprise, then, that her debut novel carries that same level of strength and complexity on every single page. Bonfire tells the story of Abby Williams, a Chicago lawyer who returns to her hometown of Barrens, IN, to investigate the corrupt multinational company that also happens to be the economic lifeline of her home — and finds that the scandal she's now found herself knee-deep in might have its roots in something far, far closer to her heart than she ever could've imagined.
Abby's present-day investigation is interwoven with the memories of her painful teenage years, and Ritter's prose moves back and forth between the two gracefully, demonstrating that perhaps Abby hasn't moved on as much as she might have once believed and showing the lasting effect that bullying and trauma can have on even the strongest among us. As Abby confronts her demons one by one, it becomes clear that she's one hell of a complicated lady — and a protagonist that's so damn appealing that it's hard not to read the whole book in one sitting.
I spoke with Krysten Ritter by phone on the day before Bonfire hit shelves nationwide on Nov. 7. In addition to sharing a bit more about the inspiration behind the book and her process, we spoke at length about the pressures that girls and women face in 2017 — bullying, peer pressure, and ungodly expectations among them — and what she hopes that readers will take away from her brilliant debut.
On the inspiration behind Bonfire, and how the book came to be:
"I was originally kicking it around as a TV idea; I wanted to have this strong female protagonist go back home to her small town — one that's similar to the one that I'm from — and then this crazy event happens around a bonfire, and then everybody in the town is working to cover it up. I'm from a small town, and there are parts of the country that just don't get looked at as much today. Remember that documentary, Making a Murderer? I got kick out of that, because that part of the country kind of looks like where I'm from, and what was happening to that guy and everybody kind of working together to cover all this shit up . . . I found that so fascinating, and I wanted to play with that area."
"So the idea started as a TV pitch, like a kernel of an idea, and then it grows into an 11- or 12-page treatment, and then I pitched it to my agent in addition to several other ideas. Because it had the parallel storyline of the teen set — I love teenagers, I love playing with the social life of teenagers, so that was really important to me — I wanted the book to live in the YA universe, but also be for adults. I wanted it to go either way, for it to be readable for young adults, but since we're also reading young adult books as adults, I wanted it to be both things. So their first instinct was, 'Oh, maybe you could get rid of the teen-set storyline?' and I was like, 'Well, that's kind of like the most important part.' The most important thing to me in this book is my main character, and the stuff that she's running from and going back and dealing with it. I can't just lift the parallel storyline of the teenagers; that would ruin it, that's what the whole thing is based on."
"So I was thinking more about it and I really loved this idea, and I loved the character, and I'm thinking about all these TV pitches and that everybody wants something to be based on a book — everybody is trying to option books, and selling is getting harder and harder — people are buying less and less, but if there's existing intellectual property that's proven . . . then you have a leg up. It was kind of like a sappy, savvy business idea at first to do it as a book. And then I could sell it as a TV show or a movie."
On how we can stop young girls from being bullied and how to change the narrative:
"I've thought a lot about this. There's a lot of things that we can do as women. By straight up being nicer to each other. By putting great characters like this on screen, and people feeling represented and heard and OK in their own stuff, makes people feel OK. Maybe we don't always have to wear fake eyelashes and big barrel curls. Maybe we don't have to always have a fake f*cking tan and feel pressure to look really sexy all the time. When I go out of the house, I don't have anything on my face, I have my hair up, I have like jeans and a f*cking jacket. The more we show real sides of women as they are, that's going to continue to feel normal and feel good."
"Think about years ago, when Modern Family came out. You have this amazing, loving, supportive gay couple on screen who are amazing and fun — in people's houses every week, maybe in households who don't see that all the time. And then it becomes normal. They become used to seeing it and it's no longer a thing, and it's like, 'Great.'"
"In the past couple of years, there's been more left-of-center, not-perfect women on screen. And now we're all kind of like, 'Oh, yeah, totally.' Everyone's kind of catching on, getting on that thing, and aching for it. That creates change, even if it's only a handful of people at a time. Movies, TV, and books have a way of moving society forward, kind of subconsciously."
On the writing process and falling in love with it:
"Once I started writing, I fell so in love with the process — because it felt like all of my favorite parts of getting ready to play a great role. It felt like all of my favorite parts of character development, and I also got to do it from the comfort of my own house, at my kitchen table, or in bed. So I started with my character, and my setting, and kind of went from there."
"It started as a couple-page treatment, then an 11-page treatment, than a 15-page, 18-page outline, and then that keeps growing and it's a 40-page outline and then it moves from there to my corkboard and index cards and to me plotting out scenes. I call chapters scenes, because that's how I see them. Because I'm an actor, so I think about things in terms of scenes. My chapters are really short, too, like I get in and I get out — you know? That's me bringing my tools that I've acquired along the way in my career."
On the similarities between Abby Williams, Jessica Jones, and Krysten Ritter:
"Here's the similarity: I play both characters. I play Jessica Jones, but as far as I'm concerned, I play this role too. And I use myself as a way in, always, whether I'm writing or acting or developing or just producing. I use real feelings, then of course embellish and create and imagine and riff, and it becomes something else. But I always use myself and try to relate to real psychology, real physicality, real feelings, real visuals for my stuff to make it real. They have that in common."
"I also think that they're both strong, complicated, complex women — which I think we all are, which I think I am, and I'm sure you are. She could be compared to any messy female protagonist who isn't perfect and isn't pretty, and I think people want to see more characters like that because it's real. Because we're not just one thing. We all have some stuff, you know what I mean?"
On the research and know-how required to write a complex character:
"All of the legal stuff requires a lot of research, and a lot of putting a little 'TK' for yourself to ask for help or go back to it. And then there's overwriting, as much as possible. In doing Jessica Jones — Jessica is a private investigator, so she does a lot of investigative work — it's interesting to see how you have a character go and ask for something and not just get the right answer to be able to move forward. I would see the writers in all the episodes that I've done find clever ways of doing that. So I was already thinking about ways for Abby to get information that weren't super easy, so it didn't feel like an episode of Law & Order . . . because in that, you go through and you ask questions, and you get the right answers, and you keep going. So that's something I was kind of aware of, because I'd seen it first hand in working on Jessica Jones and reading all the scripts and seeing how clever the writers were with coming up with stuff. So it was something that was on my radar."
"But the legal stuff . . . you have to research and research and I was finding myself researching it and then immediately explaining it, like, 'Oh, this is how you get a subpoena' and then I'd explain it, and it was reading kind of like VCR instructions — but then it's like, 'OK, right, I'm writing this in detail because I don't actually know — I'm doing the research, I'm explaining it for myself, but Abby would know these things,' so ultimately it's really about overwriting it and then — something my editors were always pointing out, 'slashing it.' I would go back through and slash it, too. I'd be like, 'Whoa, this section is real boring — let's get in and get out, let's get out of this much quicker,' and throw away even more. Because when you're well-versed in a subject, you have shorthand with it. So it was kind of like doing all the research and then getting rid of it."
"And obviously the legal stuff and the corporate corruption kind of ends up being a red herring. For me, the most important thing is the emotional life. Abby ran away from her past, and now 10 years later, she's an adult and the mechanics and systems that she's put in place for herself no longer work. And that happens for all of us. So that was the most important thing for me — and the setting being authentic, and representing a real feeling of where I'm from and what was true to me."
On the beauty of short chapters in novels:
"When I'm reading a chapter and I'm in bed, or it's almost time for bed, I'll look ahead and be like, 'Oh, I only have two more pages, I'll finish this chapter.' And then I look at the next one and I'm like, 'Well, the next one's only three or four pages, so I think I'm gonna read that one too.' It kind of tricks you into keeping reading and it keeps your attention span, I think — and it also kept my attention span when I was writing it. I would work on the book in chunks of chapters. I would start with chapters one through three, work with that as if it was a self-contained story, over and over and over, write down crap, go back and rewrite it, sit on it, sleep on it, wake up, do it again, and then move on — and then start stringing it together. So even for me, working on short chapters made me feel like I could get more done or a sense of accomplishment or something."
On the pressures young girls feel today and the consequences of that pressure:
"I don't know if you saw this documentary that came out two years ago, Audrie and Daisy, on Netflix? It is REALLY hard to watch. I saw it, and it made me want to make it stop it; it made me want to speak out. It's about these two girls who were totally taken advantage of, encouraged to drink a lot — if they didn't then they were p*ssies or losers, and the boys would then get the girls really drunk, expose them, and take pictures of them. And one of them killed herself."
"And you're like — why is this happening? Why is this OK? The boys didn't even get in trouble, so why are we treating girls like this? Why are we not doing more? Why do girls feel like they have to do anything to feel pretty and liked? Why do girls have to feel like they have to do that to have value? It's just getting worse, too, with social media, with Facebook and all this stuff. It's really hard out there for girls. But culturally, we're feeling a big shift . . . and it just feels like it's gotten bad, maybe in the way that everything gets worse before it gets better. Maybe the worst is over — I don't know, I'm optimistic. But I can't help but think that there's good change happening right now."
On what's next:
"I finished [the second season of] Jessica Jones like four minutes ago, and my book comes out tomorrow . . . but I'm already thinking about ways to continue the story. Maybe it's not Abby specifically, maybe it is, I don't know — but I'd love to continue on her emotional journey. What that looks like, what's next after you do go back and deal with something that you've been burying for so long and overcome it, what's next when you take that step forward. Obviously at the end we see her driving off with Barrens in her rearview mirror . . . so again, I don't know if it's Abby. But I'd love to explore the emotional throughline of that."