S. E. Tolsen is the pseudonym of husband and wife writing team, Emma Olsen and Vere Tindale.
Emma was born in Wellington, New Zealand and Vere in Johannesburg, South Africa. They are both graduates of Victoria University New Zealand. Now living in Brisbane, Australia, Emma and Vere have joined forces to write their debut novel Bunny, a haunting psychological-supernatural thriller.
We sat down to chat with Emma and Vere to get to know a little more about their book, their process and how they made working together, work.
First of all, congratulations on your debut novel Bunny. Tell us a little about this story.
Thank you! And thank you for talking to us.
Bunny takes place in rural New England (an intentional Lovecraftian/King trope). It follows Silas, a screenwriter who unwillingly returns to his childhood home with his girlfriend and dog because an ample opportunity presents itself, but money is tight.
At home are his Mum and Aunt Bunny, who are, and have been, enmeshed in a dysfunctional and toxic co-dependent living arrangement for many years. They both suffer from alcoholism….and perhaps something more.
The story takes the idea of substance abuse creating a vulnerability that can be exploited by things in this world… and things we struggle to comprehend and runs with it.
We wanted to write a terrifying novel but also explore the absolute horror of addiction and its profound effects on the addict, as well as the people around them. The story takes place in two timelines; the mid 90’s, with the genesis of the coming nightmare, and 2018.
You adapted Bunny from your screenplay Crepuscular, which was nominated for Best Feature Screenplay at the 2018 Renegade Film Festival. What do you feel your experiences in acting and screenwriting bring to your writing?
In Screenwriting, you have 120-ish pages to do everything you do in a book, so it really teaches you about story structure. It definitely helps to numb that writer’s ego after pulling apart a darling scene or character for the umpteenth time – sometimes against your will – but it’s necessary due to page count or balancing character screen time. We also worked as script doctors, which was incredibly helpful, as you are taking other people’s screenplays and reworking them. Sometimes, you can learn more about a car by taking apart an existing one rather than building your own.
Another side effect for us was that we tend to write pretty lean and visually. There’s a screenwriting saying ‘show don’t tell’ which means that instead of writing, “Kevin is concerned that his wife will overreact when she sees little Timmy’s terrible report card, so he tries to butter her up first so that she won’t lose her temper and start yelling at the kid.” You write something a bit more based around behaviour, like “Kevin slides the report card under some bills and says: ‘Don’t worry Timmy. You come back in when we call you.’”
Actors are half-writers anyway – they read so many scenes and scripts for auditions that it develops a keen nose for bullshit dialogue or false notes. So, the two disciplines of acting and writing can be very cross-informative to each other. With acting, it’s the actor’s job to care disproportionality about the character they are playing. Not selfishly, but it’s shamanistic in a way – you give life to another being for a brief instant through your own voice, body, and action. That regard for character can only ever enhance your writing, and we would both count that as a real gift that we can apply to characters as we write and live with them. Most writers probably experience something very similar, but acting is how we found that relationship with the written world.
Many writers collaborate and co-author books, but it must add a whole other layer of challenges when your co-author is you’re your significant other. Or does it? What was it like writing a book together?
I think the main one is that if the other person has a major idea or something they think of at 3:00 a.m., you ARE going to hear about it! It’s bloody good fun.
Of course, there are tensions about the work sometimes, but we have the luxury of a whole life together which makes it easier to have a shorthand regarding communication and process that we might not otherwise have. We tend to discuss things together, but then when one person is writing, they do it alone.
We work iteratively and through many drafts. We found that sometimes it takes a few drafts for one or the other to clarify what they mean about something, and that can be hampered by someone looking over your shoulder. 2 hands-on keyboard is good – 4 hands bad!
Then discussion, light editing, and then one pair of hands tag out and the other pair tag in. It’s not always smooth sailing, but we enjoy writing together, we actually prefer it to writing separately. Our first paid writing gig was working in a writing team of four, so we’re used to working collaboratively from the get-go.
At Nightmare Fuel, our writers are given the challenge of telling us a story in 666 words or less. Do you write short fiction? If so, what advice would you give emerging writers about storytelling with such a restrictive word count?
Oh cool! We had no idea! Can we submit too? (Yes!) Well, bearing in mind that we are emerging writers and have no business telling other emerging writers what or how they should do anything, we’d love to share what we can for this communal madness we scribblers all experience.
With that kind of word count, maybe look at it less like a story and more as a scene. Character dialogue can be a great vehicle for exposition, but don’t forget to show behaviour. James Ellroy is famous for his janky, short writing style because it gets a lot across economically. This is from his novel L.A. Confidential and we think it’s a good example:
Ed, alone in the squad room, 6:00 A.m. The stitches on his chin itched; loose teeth made eating impossible. Thirty-odd hours since the moment – his hands still trembled.
We might not know everything about this guy Ed, but we all have a bit of an idea of his mental state and mood, as well as the time of day, place, and what the next thing to come might be, or at least what one of his major motivations is moving forward in the story. A great way to write if you need a lot to come across in a tight word count.
Finally, we love a good story recommendation! What is one horror story that you think everyone should read, and why?
Last Days by Adam Nevill is just the worst (in a good way). He manages to make you feel a little sick reading his stuff sometimes, not through gore, but psychological imagery. He also wrote the novel that the Netflix film The Ritual is based on.
We love supporting Australian horror and dark fiction writers at Nightmare Fuel, so we were thrilled to receive a request from Pan Macmillian recently to check out S.E. Tolsen’s debut novel, Bunny. No spoilers folks, it doesn’t disappoint!
Bunny is available in all good bookstores from 30 May.
You can preorder a copy from Pan Macmillan Australia