Bonfire was Wolfe's first novel. Wolfe's prior works were mostly non-fiction journalistic articles and books. His earlier short stories appeared in his collection Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine.
According to Wolfe, the characters are composites of many individuals and cultural observations. However, some characters were based on real people. Wolfe has acknowledged the character of Tommy Killian is based on New York lawyer Edward Hayes, to whom the book is dedicated. The character of the Reverend Bacon is considered by many to be based on the Reverend Al Sharpton and/or Jesse Jackson, who have both campaigned under the banner of eliminating racism, but whose methods have come under fire in recent years.
In 2007, on the book's 20th anniversary of publication, The New York Times published a retrospective on how the city had changed since Wolfe's novel.