In 'Bonfire,' Krysten Ritter Digs Up Dirt Both Environmental And Emotional

Nov 5, 2017
Originally published on November 6, 2017 10:47 am

The actress Krysten Ritter is best known for strong and complicated characters like the superhero-turned-detective Jessica Jones, star of her own Netflix series. Ritter was raised in small Pennsylvannia farm town, which inspired her debut novel Bonfire, a dark thriller about about environmental pollution, secrets and abuse. "I'm from a small town, a farm, a hundred acres," she says. "A few years ago, the frackers came in and wanted to frack on the property ... not really telling them what the environmental consequences would be. And that was something I thought about a lot."

Ritter's protagonist is Abby Williams. She's an environmental lawyer from a difficult background — her mom died when she was young, and she was kind of an outcast in school. The story begins when Williams unwillingly comes back to her home town of Barrens, Ind. to investigate why people are getting sick.


Interview Highlights

On why Ritter chose to have a character who didn't want to come home

Well, it's real juicy storytelling. Thematically, I like playing with the ideas of stuff that you try to bury, and you think will go away, but instead you carry it with you until it becomes crippling. And sometimes you have to look back and deal with some stuff in order to truly move forward.

I definitely used my own feelings as a way in, and things that I relate to. But it's fiction from there ... It definitely is a dark book, but there's some humor, and I think Abby has a self-awareness that keeps it light at times.

On the current discussion on sexual assault and harassment in Hollywood

It's crazy, because I hear all these stories and I think about all of the things that I've witnessed, or felt, and it makes me sick. You know, I'm always asked what the importance of female antiheroes or messy characters are on screen. When I first started talking about it was after season one [of Jessica Jones], and I always circled it back to good parts.

It wasn't until the show came out that real women in real life would come up to me and talk about how they felt seen and they felt represented, and because of that they were able to heal from their own sexual assault, or sexual abuse. And that hit me ... the more messy women that we put on screen, that we put in books, the more women can feel represented and seen, then they can access their own stuff, feel it's okay, and then have the strength to speak out about things like we're talking about. About rising up.

On her own Hollywood stories

It's hard to always be reduced to the way you look, or your sex appeal, or what that is. I've spoken up when things didn't feel right to me. Sometimes it has consequences ... There was one situation I had a long long long time ago, right? So there's this guy who always kind of like touched the small of my back as I walked into a room. And I didn't like it. Finally I said, like, could you not do that? I really don't like it when you touch me like that. This person completely shut down, and then became like ice cold to me, and made my working experience really difficult, and really unpleasant. So that's the consequences ... and I think that consequence was worth it.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The actress Krysten Ritter is best known for strong and complicated characters like the superhero-turned-detective Jessica Jones, the star of her own Netflix series. Ritter was raised in a small Pennsylvania farm town, which inspired her debut novel "Bonfire." It's a dark thriller about environmental pollution, secrets and abuse.

KRYSTEN RITTER: I'm from a small town, from a farm - 100 acres. A few years ago, the frackers came in and wanted to frack on the property. They would - came in and made it seem really appealing and were like, OK, so we're just going to dig on your land - not really telling them, like, what the environmental consequences would be. And that was something that I thought about a lot in terms of, like, wanting to set this in a small town and have, like, a small crime and subterfuge happening where everybody's kind of in on it and trying to cover it up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Krysten Ritter joined me from our studios in New York to talk about her book and its protagonist, Abby Williams. She's an environmental lawyer from a difficult background. Her mom died when she was young, and she was kind of an outcast in school. The story begins when Williams comes home to Barrens to investigate why people are getting sick.

RITTER: (Reading) I swore many times that I would never go home. But now I know better. Any self-help book in the world will tell you that you can't just run away from your past. Barren's has its roots in me. And if I want it gone forever, I'll have to cut them out myself.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Cutting out your roots - I think that resonates for so many people who look at their childhood or their upbringing and don't necessarily have happy memories. She's haunted by what happened to her when she was growing up. Why did you want to have a character like that come back to this town?

RITTER: Well, it's real juicy storytelling (laughter). Thematically, I like playing with the ideas of stuff that you try to bury and you think will go away, but instead you carry it with you until it becomes crippling. And sometimes you have to, like, look back and deal with some stuff in order to really move forward. You know, I relate to, like, going home and feeling...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was about to ask, like, did this happen on a trip that you made home?

RITTER: I definitely used my own feelings as a way in and things that I relate to. But it's fiction from there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I hope so considering the - we're not going to give too much away. But I would hope that it is fiction from there because it's a pretty dark tale.

RITTER: Totally, totally...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Very dramatic.

RITTER: It's definitely dark. It's - you know, it's really - it definitely is a dark book. But there's some humor. I think Abby has a self-awareness that keeps it alight at times.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, she's a likeable character. She's a...

RITTER: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Definitely.

RITTER: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, definitely. Speaking of darkness, Jessica Jones is a survivor of rape. And the show was lauded for its portrayal of that. This is a moment in time when many women, especially in your industry are talking about sexual assault. And many women are finding that discussion empowering. How has the discussion impacted you? I mean, you were discovered at 15. You worked from when you were very young in this industry.

RITTER: Yeah, I did. And it's crazy because I hear all of these stories and I think about all of the things that I've witnessed or felt, and it makes me sick.

You know, I'm always asked what the importance of, like, female anti-heroes or messy characters are on screen. When I first started talking about it, it was after Season 1. And I always, like, circled it back to good parts - wasn't until the show came out that real women in real life were come up to me and talk about how they felt seen and they felt represented. And because of that, they were able to heal from their own sexual assault or sexual abuse. And that hit me. I was, like, wow. This is like so much bigger than parts. The more messy women that we put on screen, that we put in books, the more women can feel represented and seen - that way can access their own stuff - feel it's OK and then have the strength to speak out about things like we're talking about - about rising up. So I feel like, you know, a great privilege and honor to get to play Jessica Jones - but in that, I've learned so much about myself, about how it actually affects other women, how it actually can move society forward.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you feel as though that's what's happening now?

RITTER: I do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's changing?

RITTER: I do. And now that just makes me want to, like, do this even more because you're, like, seeing an unconventional woman carrying a show. You're like, yes. That messy character is important enough to have a show. I can be who I want to be, too. And then if you get more comfortable in who you are, you can then, like, rise. So I think that is what's happening. I think the more mess that we see, the more we're going to be OK with our own mess.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you have a story to tell? I want to give you the opportunity.

RITTER: Listen. I have a million stories to tell. I have felt so many times, like - where there's a certain, like, category of men or certain age even where it's like, you come in. You shake hands with all the dudes and then you say, like, oh, hey, Krysten, you look pretty. Ugh (laughter), you know? It's hard. It's hard to always, like, be reduced to the way you look or your sex appeal or your - or what that is. I've spoken up when things didn't feel right to me. Sometimes it has consequences.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Consequences how?

RITTER: Well, there was one situation that I had a long, long, long time ago, right? So, like, there's this guy who would, like, always kind of, like, touch the small of my back as I walked into a room. And I didn't like it. Finally, I said, like, could you not do that? I really don't like when you touch me like that. This person completely shut down and then became, like, ice cold to me and made my working experience really difficult and really unpleasant. So that's the consequences. So I could have just, like, kept giggling and letting him, like, whatever, touched my back, or said something, felt good about myself and then felt like (expletive) for the rest of the time. So that's a consequence that I felt. And I think that that consequence was worth it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I just want to circle back to the book. Is there going to be more of Abby, the crusading environmental lawyer?

RITTER: I want to know what happens next, what happens next in the emotional life for someone who's like, OK, they've been carrying around this thing that eats at them every night, this thing that makes them drink too much. And now they go back and they dig and they uncover it. And now they have some resolution. And she leaves it behind and is ready for the next step. What does that look like? What really happens next? Does it go away? That's the stuff that I'm interested in moving forward and after falling in love with this character. I would love to explore.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Krysten Ritter's new book is called "Bonfire." Thank you so much.

RITTER: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAXON SHORE'S "LAST DAYS OF A TRAGIC ALLEGORY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.