It’s been ten years since Abby Williams left home and scrubbed away all visible evidence of her small-town roots. Now working as an environmental lawyer in Chicago, she has a thriving career, a modern apartment, and her pick of meaningless one-night stands.
But when a new case takes her back home to Barrens, Indiana, the life Abby has painstakingly created begins to crack. Tasked with investigating Optimal Plastics, the town’s most high-profile company and economic heart, Abby begins to find strange connections to Barrens’ biggest scandal from more than a decade ago, involving the popular Kaycee Mitchell and her closest friends—just before Kaycee disappeared for good. But as she tries to find out what really happened to Kaycee, troubling memories begin to resurface, and she begins to doubt her own observations.
With tantalizing twists, slow-burning suspense, and a remote rural town of only five claustrophobic square miles, Bonfire is a dark exploration of what happens when your past and present collide.
Krysten recently spoke with Read It Forward editor Abbe Wright about everything from the genesis of this suspenseful story, how she brought a cinematic sense to her writing, and the ever-present danger of keeping your credit card on file at your favorite bookstore.
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Read It Forward: I’ve loved you since watching Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23, and I’m so glad you’re now a novelist. What inspired you to write Bonfire?
Krysten Ritter: It’s been a few years in the works. I’ve written pilots and features, and I get great on-the-job training. I’m one of those people who says “Oh, I want to do that too,” and kind of do it. I started developing the idea based on this small town in Pennsylvania where I’m from, where the weekend activity—the party you go to—is a bonfire. I thought it would be cool to set something in the rural countryside; it felt true to me. So shit goes down, and the next day everyone in the town is trying to cover it up. I wanted to look at what kind of crime that would be, and in a part of the country that a light isn’t really shed on all that much.
The idea started there, and I started developing it as a TV pitch. I kept finding out who my protagonist would be, exploring themes that resonated or feelings I wanted to explore. And then I created this whole TV pitch. I did a whole song and dance for my team, and their feeling was that I’d have a hard time in the current climate in the marketplace selling it. It’s a show about teenagers, and maybe a murder, a missing girl.
KR: I’m like, “That’s kind of the whole point.” When I pitched that to my company, I realized everyone wants existing and celestial property. Everybody’s optioning books and wants source material that’s either a book or a comic book: something that’s been proven. So I read a lot of books, and I thought maybe I could reverse-engineer this idea. Maybe I don’t have to put it to bed just because somebody told me no; maybe I do it as a book instead. That was the inspiration and how it came to be. It was kind of a scrappy, savvy business idea.
RIF: Have you always been a writer or was that challenging?
KR: I’ve been writing for a long time. I pitched something when I first started acting—you know, reading scripts and doing pilots. I’m like, “I can do that, let me try!” So I did. I wrote and sold my first pilot in my mid-20’s, and then I got into doing independent films, and I wrote a movie. I really like writing, and I love getting lost in the character. I love getting in that zone. It’s one of my favorite things to do.
RIF: For those who haven’t read it yet, can you tell us a little bit about the plot of Bonfire and the central character it revolves around?
KR: Bonfire is a psychological-suspense story that’s set in a small town called Barrens, Indiana. We follow my main character, Abby Williams; she’s an environmental lawyer. She moved away from home ten years ago, and she’s made a nice life for herself. She has everything you’re supposed to have on paper to be happy. However, she isn’t.
There’s some stuff from her past that she’s buried. She’s always circling back and wondering, “What’s going on in Barrens?” It’s still eating at her. When some reports surface on potential water pollution in Barrens, she’s sent back to do some investigative work. She has this obsession with her hometown that she can’t shake, but she doesn’t think she’s going to be the one who has to go back and deal with it. Even though it’s difficult for her, she still wants to look out for the little guy, and she knows there’s something there and that when she uncovers it, she can truly move forward.
RIF: She’s got so much invested in this town that she even as she tries to stuff things down, it keeps pulling her back.
KR: Exactly. Especially as adults, you get to a certain point where the systems and mechanisms you used to keep moving and shaking something off that you’ve left behind—all of a sudden those systems don’t work anymore, and that thing you tried to bury is getting bigger and heavier. So you have to go back and reexamine before you can move forward. And right now, when we meet Abby, she’s emotionally stunted and stuck.
RIF: She struggles with reconciling the Chicago-based, fast-talking lawyer she’s become with the person she used to be, next to the people she used to know who are still in this town. It leads me to wonder, “Can you go home again?”
KR: I think we all know how it feels when we go home for Thanksgiving, and you’re all of a sudden acting like a 15-year-old and fighting with your parents or regressing in some way. All these things you forgot and put in a box; suddenly the lid comes off and you’re like, “What is happening to me?” We see that for Abby. It becomes this blackish area where it’s the modern-day Abby with the persona she’s created mixing with who she was as a teenager and what she went through.
RIF: Is it the same or different to get into character when you’re writing versus when you’re acting?
KR: It’s very similar, surprisingly. A lot of the work I do as an actress happens before I step on set, before I’m even in front of a camera. It’s about getting inside a head so you can get to know a character and how she would act in a certain way. It’s finding opportunities to show versus tell, getting into behaviors and things like that. For me, a lot of my favorite parts about acting are in the development.
Building this felt like all of that, so it was really fulfilling and exciting and freeing because I didn’t have to go be in front of it forever or be on camera. I would write from when I got up in the morning with a pot of coffee, from my bed half the time. And when my back would start to hurt, I would migrate to the kitchen and sit at the table, which is essentially my desk, because I don’t really sit down for meals. It was really exciting and nice to be in my own world.
RIF: Yeah, and no hair and makeup!
KR: Like the exact opposite of hair and makeup. We’re talking sweatpants, hair on top of the head, probably un-showered, yeah.
RIF: That’s perfect. Did you take any skills from being in front of the camera, or even behind the camera, into your writing?
KR: Yeah, for sure. I feel like my whole career has been school. I’m always observing, and I’m a sponge in any setting. I like to surround myself with people I learn from. With television, you’re around so many writers, and you see so many drafts of things that are tried and tossed out and rewritten. I’ve learned a lot from people I’m around, and by reading and writing so many scripts, and knowing this has to happen on this page, and each scene or chapter has a beginning, middle, and end. Jumping into a scene in the middle, getting out quickly—those are things I feel I’ve learned in my career that I brought to this process. By the way, I call chapters “scenes.” I’m trying, but for me it all plays out; it’s all very visual.
RIF: And you can really see all of that in the scenes—they’re very cinematic. You can smell Barrens, Indiana.
KR: Good, I tried to describe the smells very acutely! That’s the thing when you’re in the country and it’s pitch black and you can smell everything: you can smell a fire burning far away, you can smell chicken farms. There are so many things, and they just hit you and transport you. I’m glad that’s coming off the page.
RIF: Environmental conservation is such a big part of the conversation today, and I really felt this book was a blend of Erin Brockovich with a thriller. Why did you include this environmental bent in your novel?
KR: I’m from a farm in Pennsylvania, and years back companies started popping up and offering people in the middle of nowhere a couple thousand dollars, which is life-changing. They were like, “We’re just going to drill over here,” and they didn’t even mention there would be repercussions or environmental issues. They’ll tell you, “We’re going to drill, but it’s just going to run off into the stream.” And then that was going down this hill to where your cows are grazing, and then your well’s over there. So that’s something I thought about a lot.
And while I was developing this, the Flint, Michigan water crisis was happening. I thought it was an interesting backdrop for what’s front and center—Abby’s emotional journey and life—and a timely subject. It’s something that’s happening. I wanted to shine a light on it without being too message-y.
RIF: The environmental concerns lend themselves to the thriller, because something you do after a split-second decision, like drilling in one spot, leads to repercussions way down the line.
RIF: What do you hope readers will take away from reading this?
KR: I hope people can find something to relate to in someone who doesn’t have their shit together. Nobody really does have their shit together, and there’s a pressure we put on ourselves that we get from society and that we feel from the people we know to have it all together all the time. Sometimes pretending to have it together can be really harmful to you. That’s what I’m drawn to, as a viewer and as a connoisseur of all things that involve complicated characters. I hope people realize she has all these problems, but she still puts one foot in front of the other and kind of saves the day.
RIF: Totally. And her name is Abby, which I loved.
KR: Thanks. Yeah, I bet!
RIF: She is just beautifully flawed in the way that all of us are, and she’s doing her best, especially with the relationships she has with men and with her dad. It was so on point. I think lots of people can see themselves in the not having everything together aspect.
KR: Because who does?
RIF: No one. No one that I know, anyway.
KR: Nobody! Period.
RIF: So, Krysten, what are you reading right now, or what is a book you’re excited to read?
KR: I’ve been reading a bunch. Right now I’m reading a lot of Buddhist mediation books, so that’s kind of what I’m into. They have my credit card on file, which is dangerous because you don’t have to sign anything, and they never even tell you what the total is.
KR: I’ll come in and pick up six books, like The Buddha Walks into a Bar. I’m just getting really into that at the moment. I think it’s helping me manage my schedule that’s getting out of control and think around it. It’s out of control in a good way, but also in a way that’s like, “What?” That’s something I’m doing to work on myself, some self-improvement. I love thrillers. I was the first in line for Into the Water, Paula Hawkins’ new book, and The Lying Game, Ruth Ware’s new novel. I loved The Woman in Cabin 10, which is definitely at the top of my list.
Also, I absolutely loved Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I’ve gotten a lot of people—hair and makeup girls, a group of seven or eight of us—into a whole rotation. If we read a book and it’s amazing, I’ll pass it on, then they pass it on; it’s so exciting. I’ve been doing some interviews lately, and no one’s read Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. I’m like, “Oh my god.” I’m trying to get all these people to read it. I loved it. It’s like The Rosie Project, but I love how it has almost a thriller aspect. I hope she does a sequel.
RIF: I do, too!
KR: That’s just one of the characters I couldn’t stop thinking about. It also happened with The Goldfinch. I just love Theo Decker so, so, so much. When I picked it up, I thought, “I’m never going to finish this; it’s so big.” But sometimes it’s just about the characters. Sometimes I’ll read a book over a weekend and think it’s the best book I’ve ever read, and then maybe a year later I forget the character’s name. But then there are some characters that just stick with you.
Author Photo: © Bailey Taylor