When Krysten Ritter was writing her first novel, Bonfire, about a shady cover-up in small-town America, a plastics company with suspicious motives and a decade-old scandal given new relevance, she understood the genre she was working in.
Still, she surprised herself when she finished a first draft of the manuscript and was able to take it all in.
“The book is dark, I am aware,” she said in her natural, deadpan mode. “But I don’t think I was aware how dark until I read the whole thing in one sitting.”
Ritter has already shown an affinity for shadowy, suspenseful material in her film and TV work, playing enigmatic characters on shows such as Breaking Bad and Don’t Trust the B - - - - in Apartment 23.
And she has embraced the flawed but powerful title character she currently plays on the Netflix superhero drama Jessica Jones, a detective fighting to take charge of her life while she tends to some deep psychic wounds.
Bonfire, published by Crown Archetype this month, is Ritter’s fictionalised dive into her own rural upbringing and a thriller in the style of her favourite genre novels. In a review, Publishers Weekly called it “a triumphant fiction debut” and a “pulse-pounding thriller featuring a sympathetic, broken lead character”.
But Ritter said that she also considered the novel “an act of pure defiance”: a narrative she wants to see more of, featuring a female protagonist she relates to, made at a time when she was disappointed with other acting opportunities offered to her.
“I’m not conventional,” Ritter said over a recent lunch in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “I try to be raw and vulnerable and gross.” The novel, she said, “was a way for me to create something for myself - to take the story back and do what I want to do.”
The protagonist of Bonfire is Abby Williams, an environmental lawyer in Chicago who returns to her modest hometown, the fictional Barrens, Indiana, to investigate a case against Optimal Plastics, a conglomerate intertwined in seemingly every aspect of the community.
There, while Abby is reacquainted with all that she loved and (mostly) hated about living in the area, she is drawn back into an unsolved mystery from her high-school days, 10 years earlier, when a group of her teenage tormentors were beset by an unexplained sickness and one of her mean-girl rivals went missing.
Ritter, 35, who came of age in the small borough of Shickshinny, Pennsylvania, said her ambition was to bring to life a “twisted backwoods” setting where “the party that you go to on Friday night is a bonfire”, and “the district magistrate is putting people in juvie when he’s out smoking weed with kids on the weekends.”
Some of the most evocative passages in Bonfire are about Abby’s awkward return to Barrens, a town she thought she outran. There, Ritter writes, beauty works “by sidling up to you when you least expect it” and an unappealing childhood home “seems to rush toward me and not the other way around. Like it’s eager to get me inside. Like it’s been waiting”.
Ritter did not have a high-school experience as brutal as Abby’s but, she said, “I understand the feelings of being the outcast and the loner.”
In her early teens, she came to Shickshinny as an only child raised by a divorced mother, traits that she said made her a prominent target for whispers and rumors. “At that time, where I’m from, nobody got divorced yet,” she said, “so everybody was like, ‘Psst, psst, psst’.”
By the time she graduated from high school, she was modeling extensively in New York, Tokyo and Milan, but craving work as an actor, producer and musician.
She has since found those opportunities on shows such as the teenage noir Veronica Mars, as well as in projects she has developed with her production company, Silent Machine.
Gren Wells, a screenwriter, director and friend of Ritter’s, described her as “psychotically driven, in the best way.”
“In this industry, you have to be a self-starter and make your own career,” Wells said. “She’s not the type of actor who sits around and waits for a phone call. She will create her own product.”
Ritter said that she placed particular value in her experience on Jessica Jones, based on that Marvel heroine, a wisecracking private investigator still coping with the trauma of a villain who invaded and took over her life.
“It wasn’t until after the show came out,” she said, “ that real women on the street would tell me how Jessica Jones changed their lives - how it helped them deal with their own past sexual trauma.”
After several of those interactions, Ritter said, “I started to think in different terms. It made me want to be even better. It made me want to give it all.”
Ritter was already committed to playing the Jessica Jones character in another Netflix series, The Defenders, and while she waited for it to start shooting, she was dismayed with the film roles she was being offered in the meantime: sundry strippers and wives of husbands who were “like my dad’s age”, she said.
“No, I don’t want to do that,” she said. “That’s not what I want to put into the world.”
Instead, Ritter spent several months writing Bonfire at her home in Los Angeles, putting meat on the bones of an idea she originally had for a possible TV series.
Her writing process, Ritter said, “looks like me pacing around in flannel pajamas with a pot of coffee, jotting things down by hand”. On any given day, she said, “if you checked my pedometer on my phone, I probably walked 10 miles [16km], back and forth in my home.”
When Ritter would run into creative roadblocks, Wells said, “They would last no more than 24 hours, because she didn’t have time. She was trying to finish this before starting on The Defenders, so she had a hard deadline.”
She might allow herself a few hours to knit or take a walk, Wells said, “and then she was back off to the races.”
Melissa Rosenberg, creator and show runner of the Jessica Jones TV series, said that she saw similarities in how Ritter approached her acting work and the writing of Bonfire.
“Krysten really works from the inside out,” Rosenberg said. “She cares about the internal workings of a character - how does this person move or talk? - and that informs the world they inhabit. As an actress and a writer, how she’s bringing an audience into her experience through the various choices she makes, which are sometimes just incredibly subtle.”
What Ritter and Jessica Jones share, Rosenberg said, is a sense of humour: “Jessica’s is a bit darker, on an ongoing basis,” she said. “She’s more about a one-liner and a wry look. Krysten laughs loud and she laughs easily.
Jennifer Schuster, executive editor at Crown Archetype, said she saw in Bonfire a wealth of storytelling talents that Ritter has gleaned from her on-screen career.
“She had a great eye for developing a complicated, messy female character - the kind of character that you recognise some of yourself in,” Schuster said. “Some of your own fear, some of your own darkness, some of your own secrets.”
Having recently wrapped production on a second season of Jessica Jones, Ritter is now on a promotional tour for Bonfire and exulting in the sense of freedom that the project offered her.
It’s a feeling that Ritter said reminded her of an earlier phase of her career, when she started moving away from modeling and appearing in her first TV commercials.
Recalling that era, she said, “I finally have control. It’s not all about, like, how pointy is your nose? I mean, I have a pointy nose. But what am I supposed to do? It’s what God gave me.”