When Krysten Ritter wrapped up filming her starring role in Marvel’s Jessica Jones Season 1, she knew that Jessica would be a tough act to follow. So when she wasn’t getting offered complex roles—cliché strippers and boring wives just didn’t cut it—she decided to write one herself. The result is Bonfire, Ritter’s debut novel that’s part legal-thriller, part-psychological drama. And, of course, it stars a three-dimensional female protagonist worthy of joining Jessica’s ranks.
Bonfire opens as environmental lawyer Abby Williams returns to her rural hometown for the first time in 10 years. She believes that Optimal Plastics, the town’s most high-profile business, is poisoning the water. But her investigation slowly spirals into a nightmare, as Abby becomes convinced that a girl’s disappearance when they were teens a decade ago is linked to Optimal Plastic’s corruption.
Readers may notice similarities between Jessica and Abby: they’re both heavy-drinking loners who don’t play well with others. But the similarities end there, as Ritter has crafted an original—and compulsive—protagonist.
“Abby has a lot of things that she does in order to feel in control,” Ritter tells Paste in a phone interview. “She keeps moving. She has a clean apartment with nothing in it. She’s created order in her life.” But Abby’s controlled façade crumbles when she’s forced to confront past traumas. “She’s at a point in her adulthood where that shit ain’t working anymore.”
Ritter, who says her favorite part of acting is the prep work for a character, approached Abby’s story the same way. “When I’m breaking in a character like Jessica Jones, I have this amazing opportunity to create her backstory. It’s all of the work that happens before I’m ever on camera…Writing Bonfire was like doing all of that fun stuff; it was like 300 pages of prep work.”
It’s obvious that the elements reminiscent of Ritter’s on-screen work are what make Bonfire a compelling thriller. The chapters read like short scenes. The first-person narration catapults you into the protagonist’s mind. Abby’s unreliable narration leaves you on the edge of your seat, as you question the veracity of remembered events.
This makes even more sense when Ritter says that she originally pitched Bonfire as a TV show. “But because it has the parallel story of the teenagers, that narrowed down what kind of network it could be at. People were like, ‘What if you don’t do the teen part?’ Well, the whole point is that something happens to teenagers at a bonfire; that is the basic pitch.”
Rather than reframe the plot to appease TV execs, Ritter chose to write it as a novel. She completed the first draft in the break between filming Jessica Jones Season 1 and The Defenders, the companion show starring all of Netflix’s Marvel heroes. And today, “five minutes after finishing Jessica Jones Season 2,” Ritter jokes, the book is out in the world.
Now a successful storyteller in multiple mediums, Ritter reveals she wants to write another book. “It’s hard work and requires a lot of discipline, but I love that you have something you can hold in your hands at the end.” Knowing Ritter, this means another novel featuring a kickass female character.
It can’t come soon enough.
Ritter’s work on and off the screen demonstrates a crucial truth: strong female characters aren’t at their strongest when they’re literally or figuratively winning a fight (although that is glorious to behold). They’re strongest when they recognize their vulnerabilities and push on regardless. These are the kinds of women the world needs right now. And thanks to Ritter, we’re witnessing more of their stories.
Frannie Jackson is Paste’s Books Editor. She reads a ridiculous amount of sci-fi and fantasy, and she occasionally posts on Twitter.