Art In Fiction

Ella Fitzgerald & Marilyn Monroe in Can't We Be Friends by Denny S. Bryce & Eliza Knight

April 28, 2024 Carol Cram Episode 45
Ella Fitzgerald & Marilyn Monroe in Can't We Be Friends by Denny S. Bryce & Eliza Knight
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Art In Fiction
Ella Fitzgerald & Marilyn Monroe in Can't We Be Friends by Denny S. Bryce & Eliza Knight
Apr 28, 2024 Episode 45
Carol Cram

Listen in as I chat with Denny S. Bryce and Eliza Knight, co-authors of Can't We Be Friends: A Novel of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe listed in the Music category on Art In Fiction.

View the Video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=83F2k2cCnR8&t=1s

  • How Denny & Eliza decided to write their novel about Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe
  • Research tidbits that led them into the story
  • How both Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe changed the face of entertainment--Ella in jazz and Marilyn in film
  • Marilyn Monroe as one of the first female producers
  • Ella Fitzgerald's influence on jazz and how she made sure she was in the mix for each change in music trends within jazz
  • What the friendship meant from each woman's point of view 
  • The power of female friendship; quote from Michele Obama
  • Ella and Marilyn, and their relationships with the men in their lives
  • How Can't We Be Friends is a novel about striving to be the best, about excellence even more than fame
  • How Ella Fitzgerald was "dangerous"
  • Challenges that Eliza & Denny faced writing a novel about two real people
  • Reading by Denny Bryce from Can't We Be Friends
  • Reading by Eliza Knight from Can't We Be Friends
  • The collaboration process--how Denny & Eliza wrote the novel together
  • What both Eliza & Denny learned from writing Can't We Be Friends
  • Use of first and third person in Can't We Be Friends
  • The power of spreadsheets!
  • What Denny is working on now
  • What Eliza is working on now

Press Play now & be sure to check out Can't We Be Friends on Art In Fiction: https://www.artinfiction.com/novels/can-t-we-be-friends

Denny S. Bryce's Website: https://dennysbryce.com/
Eliza Knight's Website: https://elizaknight.com/

Are you enjoying The Art In Fiction Podcast? Consider helping us keep the lights on so we can continue bringing you interviews with your favorite arts-inspired novelists. Just $3 buys us a coffee (and we really like coffee) at Ko-Fi. Just click this link: https://ko-fi.com/artinfiction

Also, check out the Art In Fiction website at https://www.artinfiction.com where you'll find over 1800 novels inspired by the arts in 10 categories: Architecture, Dance, Decorative Arts, Film, Literature, Music, Textile Arts, Theater, Visual Arts, and Other.

Show Notes Transcript

Listen in as I chat with Denny S. Bryce and Eliza Knight, co-authors of Can't We Be Friends: A Novel of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe listed in the Music category on Art In Fiction.

View the Video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=83F2k2cCnR8&t=1s

  • How Denny & Eliza decided to write their novel about Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe
  • Research tidbits that led them into the story
  • How both Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe changed the face of entertainment--Ella in jazz and Marilyn in film
  • Marilyn Monroe as one of the first female producers
  • Ella Fitzgerald's influence on jazz and how she made sure she was in the mix for each change in music trends within jazz
  • What the friendship meant from each woman's point of view 
  • The power of female friendship; quote from Michele Obama
  • Ella and Marilyn, and their relationships with the men in their lives
  • How Can't We Be Friends is a novel about striving to be the best, about excellence even more than fame
  • How Ella Fitzgerald was "dangerous"
  • Challenges that Eliza & Denny faced writing a novel about two real people
  • Reading by Denny Bryce from Can't We Be Friends
  • Reading by Eliza Knight from Can't We Be Friends
  • The collaboration process--how Denny & Eliza wrote the novel together
  • What both Eliza & Denny learned from writing Can't We Be Friends
  • Use of first and third person in Can't We Be Friends
  • The power of spreadsheets!
  • What Denny is working on now
  • What Eliza is working on now

Press Play now & be sure to check out Can't We Be Friends on Art In Fiction: https://www.artinfiction.com/novels/can-t-we-be-friends

Denny S. Bryce's Website: https://dennysbryce.com/
Eliza Knight's Website: https://elizaknight.com/

Are you enjoying The Art In Fiction Podcast? Consider helping us keep the lights on so we can continue bringing you interviews with your favorite arts-inspired novelists. Just $3 buys us a coffee (and we really like coffee) at Ko-Fi. Just click this link: https://ko-fi.com/artinfiction

Also, check out the Art In Fiction website at https://www.artinfiction.com where you'll find over 1800 novels inspired by the arts in 10 categories: Architecture, Dance, Decorative Arts, Film, Literature, Music, Textile Arts, Theater, Visual Arts, and Other.

Carol Cram

Hello and welcome. I’m Carol Cram, host of The Art In Fiction podcast. This episode features Denny S. Bryce and Eliza Knight, co-authors of Can’t We Be Friends: A novel of Ella Fitzerald and Marilyn Monroe listed in the Music category on Art In Fiction. 

Denny S. Bryce is an award-winning and bestselling author of historical fiction, including Wild Women and the Blues listed in the Dance category on Art In Fiction. She is also an adjunct professor in the MFA program at Drexel University and a book critic for NPR. She resides in Savannah, Georgia.

Eliza Knight is an award-winning and USA TODAY and international bestselling author of historical women’s fiction. She’s written dozens of novels including The Mayfair Bookshop listed in the Literature category on Art In Fiction and  Starring Adele Astaire listed in the Dance category on Art In Fiction. Eliza is also the creator of the popular historical blog, History Undressed, and host of the History, Books and Wine podcast. Eliza lives in Maryland and Florida with her husband, three daughters, two dogs, and a turtle.

 

Carol Cram

Welcome to the Art In Fiction Podcast, Denny and Eliza.

Denny S. Bryce

Hi, thank you for having us. 

Eliza Knight

Hello, so glad to be here. 

Carol Cram

I so enjoyed reading Can't We Be Friends about two of the 20th century's most iconic entertainers, Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe. Let's start out by talking about the genesis of this book. So Denny, let's start with you. How did you and Eliza come to write this novel? 

Denny Bryce

Well, we actually used to live in the same city. And what we did once a month was get together and have write-ins at each other's respective homes. And in 2019, we were hanging out at Eliza's new spot, a beautiful house out in Maryland someplace. It was huge. There were boxes. I remember that. And we were having a sip of wine, taking a break, Googling whatever, and ran across a photo of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe looking like they're just hanging out, just chilling and laughing, their expressions so organic and normal, as if two friends right there. And I said, well, cool, we've got to look into this and see what the deal is. And that's how it started. 

Carol Cram

So Eliza, do you want to add to that? 

Eliza Knight

Yeah, it was really quite fun. I mean, we were both working on our other projects, but kind of kept stopping to be, like, wait a second, I need to dig a little more. And we ended up finding this really cool little ad or something in Jet Magazine for an album called the Friends album that was going to be produced by RCA Records, and sung by Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe. And we thought, oh my goodness, this album never happened, but clearly they were friends and they were going to be, you know, singing together. So it really was just a catalyst for all of the things we had already found. And we just kept finding all these other little nuggets that were really exciting.

And it was kind of history from there. 

Carol Cram

Yeah, it's such a great idea to take these two incredible entertainers. They were both so amazing, such amazing entertainers.

So you mentioned in your authors' notes that both of them changed the face of entertainment. So let's start with Marilyn Monroe. Eliza, there was a lot more to Marilyn Monroe than some of the sort of dumb blonde roles that she played. So how did she move things forward in Hollywood? 

Eliza Knight

Sure. So that was one of the things we really wanted to portray in the novel is that Marilyn was so much deeper than she is thought of today.

And a lot of biographers have kind of put her out there as sort of like the blonde bombshell. There's a lot of people that wanted their five seconds of fame that wanted to talk about, you know, their exploits with Marilyn, but not a lot that talks about what a deep study she took as far as, like, her acting was concerned and her singing as well.

And so that was really important for us, to make sure that she came across as a human, but also as a very intelligent and determined human. She was very much interested in her own career and furthering the careers of women, and that's why she decided she was going to take control and form her own production company.

If the filmmakers weren't going to pay her a lot and they weren't going to let her do the films she wanted, then she wanted to be in control. 

So she decided she was going to form her own production company, and she sought the assistance of a friend named Milton Green, who was a famous photographer at the time, to help her form this company. She wanted to take back her control of her career, she wanted to be able to have a choice in the films that she made, she wanted to have the ability to make more money with the films that she was working in.

And so she formed this production company, which, unfortunately, in the end, didn't end up being able to produce more than two films. But, I think she sort of paved the way for actresses and women in the film industry, like Reese Witherspoon, who now have their own production companies. And it's not something that was widely done in the 50s and 60s, and so the fact that you have Marilyn sort of, like, starting that out is just a really great motivator for women that came after.

Carol Cram

That's something I knew absolutely nothing about, so that's really wonderful that you could get that into the novel and get that out to the world. Wasn't she pretty much the first, or certainly the first in the 50s? 

Eliza Knight

Yes. There was one person who started before her, but I don't think there was, there's not much talk about it. I'm sorry. I don't remember the name of the actress, but Marilyn is really known as, like, the first one who really took off. 

Carol Cram

Which is, yeah, that's amazing. I totally didn't know that. And so Ella Fitzgerald, Denny, can you sum up Ella's contribution to jazz? 

Denny Bryce

Oh, wow. Well, she was just one of the leaders. Chick Webb in 1934 was her first manager and the whole jazz scene in the 30s, coming out of the explosion of jazz in the 1920s during the prohibition. So you go from that area to the 1930s and jazz is changed. It's not necessarily solely what you discovered and found out with Louis Armstrong and the whole New Orleans jazz movement that came up through Chicago.

In 1934 was when Ella Fitzgerald walked onto the Apollo Theater stage in New York with the goal of being a dancer. But before she went on stage, she loved dance. That was her thing. She and her cousin or sister practiced constantly to be dancers. And so the thing that happened was that another dance pair performed before she got on stage.

And she was, like, Oh no, I'm not dancing in front of this crowd, not after these people. And so she said, I guess I'll go sing. And, like, you know, her voice blew everyone away. 

Chick Webb was there. Chick Webb was a band leader extraordinaire at the time, very much at the heart and he was just into the jazz scene with his band. She traveled with him. Her first hit was part of her years with him: A tisket, a tasket. What's the next line, Eliza? A da da da da basket.

I don't know. But we were singing it a lot when we were writing. 

Eliza Knight

I know because now I can't think of the lyrics that I rewrote where it's just, like, I hope my letter finds your basket. 

Denny Bryce

Oh, we rewrote or wrote Eliza. No, I didn't write any songs. But Eliza wrote a couple of lyrics for songs in the novel. And we had an editor come back to us during copy edit, saying you need to get rights for that. And we're like, time out, you know, this is where the fiction part comes in. This is not an original by anybody. 

So that was hysterical. That was, you know, we haven't told that, that we'll have to keep that in our roster because that was a fun moment. 

Eliza Knight

It was. I was, like, wait, we need permission?

Denny Bryce

But Ella's contribution, I segued into so many different directions there. She was just at the heart of the jazz scene during that time because by the time we get to where our story begins, which is the 1950s, frankly, there's a epilogue that takes place in the 70s that shoots you into the early 1950s. By that time, Ella had been in the biz almost 20 years. And so her career had been explosive. She did a lot of recordings, but she was playing the usual spots, the nightclubs. Thick cigarette smoke, the New York clubs, the Chicago clubs, et cetera, et cetera. 

And by the 1950s the whole music scene had changed. You had more swing. You have more this, that and the other thing, that and bebop. But Ella Fitzgerald, I'm gonna throw out a name because Beyoncé does a little bit of this her darn self.

Ella Fitzgerald made sure she was in the mix for each change. She stayed true to her jazz roots, but she was always on top of the latest trend in music because she was a musician and artist, first and foremost, and what she wanted to do, what she had to do, was be on stage performing. 

Carol Cram

We could talk forever about Ella's music. It's just so amazing. But getting back to the novel, at its heart, this novel is a novel about friendship between two powerful and very talented women.

So, Denny, would you talk about what the friendship meant from Ella's point of view, the friendship with Marilyn Monroe? 

Denny Bryce

Ella was a hard nut to crack on the friendship road. And what it meant to her, I really feel, was that she gained trust, and that was a big thing for her to trust the genuine expression of friendship that Marilyn threw her way. And so she was not going to jump on the Marilyn bandwagon without some time, some testing, some laughter. 

That's, I really think, was a real entree for Ella in her relationship with Marilyn, because Marilyn had a great sense of humor. And Marilyn was, in her way, when it came, even though maybe it's the way Eliza just put Marilyn on the page, but I believe that from our research we found this. Marilyn was a person who enjoyed a lot of her life, a lot of the time. She was a reader, she was an enthusiast when it came to music and jazz. So Ella learned to trust that she was getting that girl as a friend, and she opened up just quite organically to that sort of friendship energy. I'll put it that way. 

Carol Cram

Yes, because it was Marilyn that pursued Ella for the friendship at the beginning, wasn't it? So, Eliza, can you talk about what the friendship meant from Marilyn's point of view? Like, what is it about Ella that Marilyn needed, really? 

Eliza Knight

I think what she needed from Ella was honesty and that's not something that she got from a lot of the people that were in her realm, you know, most of the people, they were using her for whatever they could give her and whether or not that was, you know, parts in a movie or something sexual or pills, like, it just seems like a lot of her relationships weren't genuine.

And what she was searching for was someone that she could be genuine with, someone she could be herself with and that would accept that and be honest with her back. Like, you know, I think one of the great things about their friendship, and friendship in general, is that you know you can trust someone when they don't mind telling you "you've got a problem right now and you need to fix it."

You know, they're not, like, oh, no, you're fine. Everything's fine. You know, Ella was very straightforward about that sort of thing. And I think that is what Marilyn needed. A stable friend who would be honest with her and help her through her times. And someone that she felt she could provide, you know, I think they leaned on each other for a lot of issues.

They had similar backgrounds growing up as orphans, being in, you know, relationships, really trying to push themselves above and on top of their careers. So I think that they both had ambitious personalities and just were able to actually just be themselves. This one candid photo that we found of them, it's just my favorite photo ever.

And it's, like, Ella's clearly saying something funny. And she's, like, mid-conversation, her hands are like this and she's laughing. And then Marilyn's got her head thrown back laughing. And it's just so genuine to see that they actually just really enjoyed each other's company. And I think that is what is so important, that they could be real to each other and share so much more than they could with other people, I think. 

Carol Cram

What you really brought out, both of you, in this novel is female friendship. Just the power of female friendship. Because both of them didn’t do too well with the men in their lives, did they? Yeah. Poor Marilyn, particularly. 

So, Eliza, why do you think Marilyn kept falling for men who basically abused her? What was going on with her, do you think? 

Eliza Knight

I think that part of the thing is that she grew up kind of being abused by men in her life and wasn't always very secure. And so a lot of times when women aren't very secure in who they are or the stability of their own lives, they search out, sort of, like, the powerful men.

And a lot of times, especially in the 1950s, powerful men took advantage of that. And so she got into relationships with men that were willing to take advantage of her. And that is extremely unfortunate. I think that's just really what it was, is that she sought out powerful people that could make her feel safe and secure, and they ended up being exactly the opposite. 

Carol Cram

Yeah, it was totally heartbreaking. I didn't actually know much about her relationships. Now with Ella, I also felt that it was very heartbreaking with Thor, I mean, and Denny, how did you learn so much about that relationship? 

Denny Bryce

By deciphering news articles, timing, you know, really looking at when things happened. What was said, at one point in time, there's a news article where Ella Fitzgerald admitted being married to Thor, but that article was minimalized, was, uh, you know, pointed to as inaccurate by her management team. 

Then there was one thing that really, really made the case to me that that relationship was super romantic and had so many challenges, was a 1980s interview that I found on YouTube where the question was, Ella, how did you avoid scandal in your career? There was never any scandal. And she said, well, I almost had a scandal when I fell in love with a white man, from whatever country, Norway. Yes. And that was just not something that could happen back then. And that was, I was, like, okay, we're on the right track with this. So a lot of the comparisons, the timing, locations of where he was, and how that story came out later. I don't want to give away too much, no spoilers. 

And the one thing that both women really wanted from their lives was everything. They wanted their careers. They wanted their family. They wanted that husband. They wanted the picket fence and the big career and Oscar night and Grammy night and not that unusual from women today in the entertainment industry and, or just doing their life thing, where they're, like, Hey, I'm juggling, I'm doing, I'm doing. But back in the 1950s, post-World War II, a woman's role was in the suburbs. A black woman's role was not even a point of reference in society, really. In the black community, people were thriving, but people were not. But recognition outside of that was hard to come by. 

So, these women were no different than women today, except the barriers that kept them from achieving all of the things they wanted. And then their backgrounds, their exposure to so much negativity. I mean, that shapes how you approach relationships. And I feel that that's one of the reasons both of them had such a similar track record. 

Carol Cram

And what I also really enjoyed is that it's really a novel about striving to be the best, about excellence, even more than fame. I mean, they were both extremely famous, but that wasn't really their goal, was it? Like, say, from Ella's point of view, what was really her goal, apart from, you know, yes, she wanted to have love as well, but from a professional standpoint was to be the best.

Denny Bryce

Yes, to be the best to her was to be on stage, to be an instrument, a part of the band in such an intrinsic way. And then of course, Marilyn's efforts. They were both perfectionists. 

Carol Cram

They were both perfectionists. Yeah. Eliza, if you want to talk a little bit about Marilyn and the Actor’s Studio. I mean, she wasn't content to be, like, one of the most famous iconic actresses in the world. 

Eliza Knight

Right. She actually wanted to be the best actress in the world. And she thought the best way to do that was to take classes. She took classes at UCLA. And then when she found out about the Actor's Studio, she said, I've got to get in there. I need to learn about method acting. And it really was a game-changer for her. One of the best films that she ever made was Bus Stop.

And that was right after having attended the Actor's Studio. And in fact, she, um, enjoyed their coaching so much that she employed them to be her coaches on set when she was filming. So, I just think, like, she always wanted to be, like, that number one star and not just be seen as, like, the beautiful blonde bombshell, but just an amazing actress. 

Carol Cram

Yes, you really brought that out because we underestimate Marilyn Monroe. And I think the service you've done in this novel is to just show us how much depth there was to her. Yeah. And I came across a quote, Denny, on your website. You write that "each of my novels feature a cast of courageous, flawed, and sometimes dangerous female protagonists."

I can see Ella's courageous and somewhat flawed, but how about dangerous? 

Denny Bryce

For her, the biggest danger was when she switched managers. I mean, her first love on the management train was Chick Webb, but he passed away. But then after all those years with Mo, she made a tremendous choice. And changing the course of her career because under Norman Gantz was where she did the song books. When she got even more involved in the JATP tour schedule, that's when she was practically European. She spent so much time because they did two tours a year for a certain number of years there, for almost a decade, to Europe.

So yeah, to me, for her within the framework of her lifestyle, that was dangerous move for her. 

Carol Cram

Yes. So I hadn't thought of that because I was wondering where was the danger part, but yes, of course. And that was also like Marilyn, how she was innovative for her time and she took risks and took control of her career.

Denny Bryce

Yeah. 

Carol Cram

Very inspiring. It's an inspiring novel. 

Eliza Knight

Thank you. They are both extremely inspiring women in the risks that they took because they didn't know whether they were going to fail or not. They didn't know if that was going to be the end of their career and they were willing to make that jump.

And I think that's inspiring to women of their time, but also women today for us to be able to take those risks and be willing to see what happens on the other side of what, you know, what we have right now and what we want. It's not always just handed to us. You've got to work for it. And sometimes that involves risks.

Carol Cram

Exactly. It's extremely timely. So I was curious about some of the challenges you faced writing a work of fiction that is actually about two real people. Eliza, do you want to start with that question? I'm sure you've had it before. 

Eliza Knight

I think that the biggest challenge, honestly, is that this book could have been, like, I don't know, 8, 000 pages long.

Just when you're talking about a real person, their lives are so rich and there's so much that both of these women did that we really had to, like, kind of pick and choose what we were going to put into the book. And in fact, a challenge that Denny and I were put to is that when we turned our book in, it was a lot longer.

And our editor said, um, you've got to cut 150 pages from this book. And so I cried, Denny did not cry. She raged a little. Um, that's it. 

Carol Cram

That's hard. 150 pages. Oh my God. 

Eliza Knight

Really hard. Um, and so we had to then figure out, like, okay, what are we doing here? And the thing that we figured out is that we needed to focus a lot more on it.

The times that they were together, their friendship, really focusing on that part of the story, because that's ultimately what the book was about. And so we cut a lot of those pages from the front. Now, I still think, and I think Denny agrees with me, that even though it was painful, it was a great idea.

And also having written those pages actually helped us to get to know the women a lot better. And so I think in the end, we came out with a richer book because of it , and so, while it was painful, no regrets. 

Denny Bryce

Yeah, yeah. No, I completely agree with that. I, you know, the writing of it, of those pages that ended up being pulled out of the final novel, that's how we got to know them intimately, I feel.

And so after we took those pages out and then we went back in to revise what was left. It was just layers, layers, layers that we were able to put in. 

Carol Cram

Well, and I think as a reader, some of the most compelling scenes were the ones with the two of them when they were actually together, doing things together. 

We were talking earlier before we started the podcast about doing a reading. So, would you both like to read one bit each from Can't We Be Friends? 

Denny Bryce

The part I'm reading is at the beginning of the book. So, here goes.

It's the prologue, and I'm not going to read the entire prologue, but I'll give us a page and a half. How's that? Perfect. Awesome. Okay. 

Prologue. Ella. Los Angeles, California, 1972. 

Hit the high note. Go for the C. Then drop to the low Lower register and scat. B dot bop dot doo dee zing. When I do that, I disappear into the rhythm.

I don't think about what comes next. My body, my muscles, and my skin know what to expect. I don't need to do anything special. I only need to be in that moment, in that zone. You know how it feels to be perfect. The same goes for a musical note, a tempo, or a chord, a song that swings forever. Come on, girl.

You've got it made in the shade. Melodies and lyrics play through my mind as effortlessly as my next breath. I am lost in the magic of sound and music, but I don't stay in the bubble as long as I'd like. A breeze stirs. The tangy smell of my imperial roses brushes the tip of my nose. I am in the backyard of my Beverly Hills home, sitting at a table.

The table on the patio in an iron chair with a red and white cushion beneath my bottom. It's a sizable cushion. I have a sizable bottom, but that's no never mind. I'm enjoying the flowers and the sunshine, but it's hot for April. The patio table's umbrella saves me from sunstroke, but not from the sweat on my forehead.

Ella, do you want to do this out here? The sliding glass door opens and Georgiana, my cousin, emerges. She's a colorful dresser in her long red vest, flowery blouse beneath, and navy blue slacks. Neither one of us are spring chickens. We're losing, we're closing in on our mid 50s, but unlike me, Georgiana doesn't suffer from swollen ankles or such a rollercoaster ride on the bathroom scale.

She's steady as they come and twice as agile, carrying a serving tray with a large glass pitcher of iced tea, a couple of matching 12 ounce tumblers, and long handled spoons. She loves the groovy swirl pitcher set she brought at Gimbel's, which she tells me repeatedly each time she pulls it out of the cabinet.

But I'm not, but I'm more interested in how much sugar and lemon are on the tray and why she sliced the banana cake so thin. 

Carol Cram

Thank you. That's wonderful. I love the banana cake part. 

Eliza Knight

I like the banana cake part, too. And it always makes me want to eat banana cake. Yes. Definitely. All right. 

So this is from 1952.

Our car waits for Marilyn outside, and she's almost ready to leave. She picks up her Max Factor Coral Glow Red lipstick, lines her lips the way she's done since she was 13, and then flashes mascara on her long lashes. It didn't take much to transform herself back then, just like now. There is something in the attitude of Norma Jean when she is Marilyn that drives grown men to pant like wolves and women to hiss like snakes.

There's a smear of crimson on her brilliant white teeth. She blots the excess on a tissue, then makes a kissy face with a loud smack that always causes her to giggle. I'm Marilyn Monroe. The name drips from her ruby painted lips like sensual melty chocolate or decadent champagne. A name that isn't easily forgotten, at least not now.

People thought her career was made in the shade. But every role, no matter how small, was a hard won fight through the thick rays of sunlight. There had been a time, years in fact, when she'd been a starving actress, crying alone in a rented room after not one, not two, but many cynics had told her she wasn't photogenic enough, not talented enough, forgettable.

They judged her, categorized her, and filed her away. Stuck her new self into a box with her old self, as if there were no distinction. She felt lonely those days, a lot like she had when she was in the orphanage, or living as a free servant. Which is what happened to most children in the foster care system.

In the house of those who said they'd care for her. But she was forgotten there too. And then something happened, just the right amount of publicity, and not the kind that most of these girls crave, the bad kind. And now she eats filet mignon whenever she wants, but only if she keeps Norma Jean put away, only if she keeps her true self a secret.

Carol Cram

Thank you. And that's a great segue into what I want to talk about next. I'm totally intrigued about what it was like to collaborate on a novel. I've never done that before, but you guys are kind of inspiring me. But could you each talk about the writing process? 

Eliza, do you want to start on that one?

Eliza Knight

Sure. I think collaborations are awesome for a number of reasons. One is that you get to really have two distinct voices, especially if you have multiple characters. Um, and then you get to stay true to that character and bring them out. Like, I know for me, when I'm writing multiple characters, sometimes they get a little bit smeared and I have to go in and really structure them a lot better.

But, so one of the things I love about collaboration is that you get to really bring out the character's personalities, I think. And it's also fun to have a project with a friend. Like, we get to do these interviews together. We've gotten to go do different touring type things together. And then we got to share, like, the excitements of fun facts that we found, like, Oh my gosh, you want to hear about this? And then also you have someone that you can kind of get on the phone with when something's upsetting, but you can chat it out. So not only is, like, this a book about friendship, we were able to enjoy our friendship together while writing it. And that helps a lot. 

So that's one of the great things about a collaboration and the writing process can be really fun. If you love spreadsheets, not really fun if you hate spreadsheets.

Carol Cram

I love spreadsheets. 

Eliza Knight

So it's sort of like a running joke because I'm obsessed with spreadsheets and Denny's like, why are we doing another spreadsheet?

But it's, you know, it helps, like, organize all of our outlines. So, it was something that we really tried hard to really fill out all the different timelines of the characters, but also the timeline of what was going on culturally in the United States and over in Europe, their careers, their personal lives and also where we got to really hone the themes because we wanted each chapter to share themes. And I'm going to let Denny take it from there.

Denny Bryce

Okay, yeah, just a comment on those spreadsheets. I'm a Scrivener person, and I use things like Aon Timeline. If there's an app that I can put something in, I'm happy. But spreadsheets is so labor intensive, but they were good. We used them really effectively because in addition to having a column up here that might have date and location, a column over here that might have who and what and why, we also had a column that said, what are those themes that we want to really put on the page. 

Writing thematically is a solid show approach to writing when you aren't just going to say blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, but through that scene, you're going to, her goal is to hopefully deliver a message to your reader and have them have a better understanding of the emotional stakes.

So that was really, I think, I have not done collaborations before. Eliza has, but that aspect of storytelling, I really appreciate it because we were in tune with what was going to not just happen on the page, but what the takeaway needed to be. Yeah. Well, okay. I'm going to talk about some problematic things for me. This young lady, Eliza Knight, is a speed demon whenever it comes to writing. She's been in the biz a little bit longer than me, even though she's a child, but she's written a lot of books.

But I'm slower. So sometimes I found it intimidating, you know, I was, like, slow down. I'm not there yet. Obviously, I'm a good, I'm a private whiner. You know, I'm just, like, whatever. She’s doing it again. But that sort of thing helped me because she was done with almost the whole book and I was halfway through but I read through all of hers and that really contributed to making sure that our scene changes had a stronger connection, and I think that helped in our 2nd and 3rd drafts after we got rid of those 150 pages to make it less.

I think we did have as many drafts as could have happened because of the fact that I was slower. 

Carol Cram

And one thing I found interesting is that Marilyn's parts were written in the third person and Ella's in the first person. Why did you guys make that choice? 

Denny Bryce

We talked about that quite a bit, in fact. The goal, if I recall correctly, and Eliza can fix me on this, was that the story was being told by Ella, because Ella was the one who kicks it off in 1972. So it couldn't be in the first person in Marilyn's part because she was not there. I mean, she was not there in 1972. And this is something she's, you know, you play with time in your mind. They always say when you have a P. O. V. character, who are they talking to? And that really helps or contributes to how you shape your voice in many ways.

And so we made a decision that Ella's talking to the reader. And Marilyn's talking to Ella, and that's why it's in third person. 

Eliza Knight

Ella's sharing her story and sharing the story of her friendship that she had with Marilyn, that it was kept quiet during the time that she was friends. And also when this interviewer was, like, tell us about Marilyn, she's like, do I want to? That's a private part of my life. 

And so it's really her sharing those bits and us seeing Marilyn through Ella's eyes, I think. 

Denny Bryce

Because one thing that Ella did that gave us a clue that she was exactly the personality that Eliza just described is that her commentary to the magazine in 1972 was not accurate. She just perpetuated what was sort of the word on the street, not the truth of the matter.

The Macombo Club. Marilyn didn't help her get into the Macombo Club because there was a race issue or something like that. No, The first club that Marilyn did support her getting on the Sunset Strip through the Tiffany Club, but that was because of relationships that Marilyn had and her star power, of course, but the reason these clubs weren't hiring Ella had nothing to do with race; they had to do with her dress size.

They'd already had the likes of, you know, Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt, and Dorothy Dandridge on their stages at Macombo Club, at any of the Sunset Strip clubs. This is pre- Vegas. Sunset Strip was the place to be in the nightclub scene in the 50s. But she's perpetuating the word on the street because she didn't like interviews anyway. 

Carol Cram

Yes, yeah, you brought that out as well. So you talked about themes earlier. So what would you say is the theme of Can't We Be Friends? 

Denny Bryce

I think friendship, yeah. And especially the quote that we put in the opening of the book from Michelle Obama, I think it just takes it right to the heart.

Friendships between women, as any woman will tell you, are built of a thousand small kindnesses. Swapped back and forth and over again. 

Carol Cram

Yes, I love that quote. 

Denny Bryce

And when we ran into that, that was, like, Michelle Obama. And when we saw that, we were, like, Oh, well that's it, you know. 

Eliza Knight

That is what we're talking about here.

Carol Cram

Yes, and I think that that's why it's such an interesting novel because we can all relate to that. We may not be Marilyn Monroe or Ella Fitzgerald, but we understand what it is to have a friend and what a friend means. 

So one of my goals with The Art In Fiction podcast is to inspire other authors. Both of you have written several novels before Can't We Be Friends, but can you share with us something that you both learned from writing this novel that you didn't know before?

Eliza Knight

That's a really good question. You kind of got me like, what? I think I learned a lot about, honestly, the editing process. Denny has a very streamlined editing process that is different than mine. And so learning how to use her editing process, I think, made the chapters tighter and stronger and really brought out the women and the characters in the setting a lot more than any other way that I normally would edit so I definitely learned a lot from her in that respect.

Carol Cram

Oh, that's wonderful. Denny, what would you say?

Denny Bryce

Yeah, that was fun. I was going to say something silly, but I was going to say something like the power of spreadsheets. 

Eliza Knight

Hey, you did learn the power. That's true.

Denny Bryce

The thing about the storytelling was something that I'm applying as I go on and on with my next books is how to take research and planning and do a better job of turning it into story.

There's a big gap between, I mean, we spent two years because we had other projects going, just not constantly doing research, but exchanging things we found and blah, blah, blah, you know, lightweight. But we were immersed in the research. We took our time finding story. I mean, finding facts. But then facts aren't story. And that difference, I really learned about that during doing this with Eliza. And I think my latter books, I know my latter books, are going to be the better for it for that. 

Carol Cram

That's a really good point. Yes. Taking the facts and make it, because we are all, we are storytellers. Yeah, we do the research, but we are ultimately storytellers. 

Good segue—what are you each working on now? So Denny, what are you working on? If you want to share. 

Denny Bryce

Well, I have a book coming out in a few weeks called The Trial of Mrs. Rhinelander. Also based on a series of actual events that happened in 1925 New York having to do with the heir to a real estate fortune who marries a domestic and then a couple weeks later sues her for an annulment based on fraud because she didn't mention that she was a Negro.

So there's that, but that book is done and it's just coming out, but right now I'm working on a story called Where the False Gods Dwell, and it's my first historical psychological thriller, and it's a ton of fun. I have three POVs. So when we were talking about distinctive voices within the three POVs that I have in this tale.

Definitely that's something I'm paying attention to. But I'm loving 1935. There are some real events scattered through it with a gal named Catherine Dunham, who was a choreographer and dancer in the 1930s, eventually working with Martha Graham and a lot of different people. But that's not the story. She was also an anthropologist. So my story takes place in Chicago on a ship traveling to Jamaica and then in the Maroon village in the cockpit country of Jamaica. 

Carol Cram

Fascinating. Well, the dance angle also means that it could be on Art In Fiction, the website. Well, I mean, I'm pretty loose, right? But novels that have to do with aspects of the arts. 

Denny Bryce

Yeah, well, Catherine Dunham was an amazing dancer and changed a lot of what was happening in modern dance during her long career. I actually met her in 2010, well, I was a professional dancer for a while and she was probably in her nineties. Was it? Or was it 2000? I can't remember because she would've been a hundred. But she was amazing. I was a huge fan of the Martha Graham technique. Of course, if you know dance, that's an old school I could still do the arms, not the legs, but the arms.

Carol Cram

So Eliza, what are you working on?

Eliza Knight

I have a book coming out this summer as well, so I'm working on the promo for that. It's called The Queen's Faithful Companion. 

It's a novel of Queen Elizabeth II and her corgi Susan, who was a birthday gift on her 18th birthday given to her by her father, and Susan is the matriarch of all the Windsor Corgis, about 14 generations of them.

So, it's a novel of their companionship and friendship, and the Keeper of the Queen's Corgis as well. So I had a lot of fun writing that. I got to write in the dog's point of view, which was really fun. And then what I'm also working on right now is not a historical fiction. It's a women's contemporary fiction, and I'm writing it under another name, which I haven't announced yet, but I'll say it here.

It's Michelle Brandon. And it's about four sorority sisters who are being brought back to their sorority after having graduated to kind of deal with some of the secrets that they buried back when they were in college.

Carol Cram

Interesting. Well, you guys are busy. 

Eliza Knight

Yes, we are. 

Carol Cram

Which is great. You get to do it, which is what success is, isn't it? It's actually getting to write these novels and live in these worlds. 

Thank you so much, Denny and Eliza, for chatting with me today. This has just been great. As I said, I really enjoyed your novel. I learned a lot and also I just loved how you collaborated and how you managed to, you know, two people bringing together these two stories. So thank you for sharing all that with us. 

Eliza Knight

Thank you. Thank you so much. It was fun to chat about it. We're excited that you enjoyed the book too. 

Carol Cram

I’ve been speaking with Eliza Knight and Denny S. Bryce, co-authors of Can’t We Be Friends: A Novel of Ella Fitzerald and Marilyn Monroe, listed in the Music category on Art In Fiction at www.artinfiction.com.

 

Be sure to check the show notes for a link to the websites for Denny S. Bryce at www.dennysbryce.com and Eliza Knight at www.elizaknight.com . You’ll also find a link to a 20% discount on a subscription to Pro Writing Aid, a fantastic editing tool for writers. 

 

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