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SunLit

SunLit Interview: How two friends turned a fundraiser into their first mystery novel

Judilee Butler and Jean "GaGa" Gabardi had never tried fiction until they collaborated on short stories for charity. That experience led the to "The Last Hurrah."

Judilee Butler, left, taught kindergarten and special education, with a master’s degree in learning disabilities, before shifting to the corporate world and marketing. After a 20-year career with IBM, she and her husband retired to the central mountains of Colorado.
Jean “GaGa” Gabardi worked in telecom, with master’s degrees in project management and business. After earning her private pilot’s license, she returned to work in consulting, teaching and course development. She lives with her husband in the Colorado mountains.
The authors answered the SunLit questions jointly.


Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?

We have been friends for five, maybe six years. Buena Vista is a wonderful small town and it’s easy to get involved and meet people. In September, 2019, we sat next to one another at a CC Writers Exchange session at the Leadville National Hall of Fame and Mining Museum. The short story collaboration that grew out of our meeting was a fund raising effort for the museum. We wrote mystery short stories then collected them as a book, and gave the collection to the museum to raise money. A unique idea for raising money, a fun project, and the community loved it.

Our story and characters came out of this effort. We had such a great time working on the short stories—writing, laughing, embellishing, that we thought, “Hey, this fiction stuff is a whole new gig. Sure better than writing grants, training materials, business proposals. Let’s see what a book would be like.” We know now that starting from scratch was a crazy idea, but successful.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?

We see ourselves as avid readers and what better place to start a new book than the introduction and opening few pages. If it triggers an interest in brainwaves—Buy it! Read it! Pass it on! It’s a 10,000-foot overview and the details are the story inside. What better way to introduce this Phoebe Korneal Mystery to our readers? 

Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book? 

We kicked around ideas and started writing! Very naive. Then someone told us about a thing called a “narrative arc.” GaGa called Judilee: “Have you ever heard of a ‘narrative arc’?” Now we know it’s like an element in Writing 101. We had to laugh, because had we done the usual old lady “overthink” at the start, it would have been a hard pass on the whole process. 

Then, COVID started and life felt confining, cautious, and grim. It was a scary, unreal time with infection exploding, streets and highways quiet, and learning how to “live virtual.” We agreed that our story could provide a break from this heavy, careful living. Let’s write fun into the story and give ourselves and readers a break.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

The story would be a fun read and a light mystery. We settled on multiple themes: A small Colorado mountain community with its culture, a strong woman in law enforcement and her support from others, and added more and more fun action. 

We also hinted at the theme of a homeless guy who was a gold prospector. Without harping about his homeless status, he was still a member of the community and he counted. That’s all we’ll say about Old Al. 

Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?

When COVID hit, the ideas of writing fun into the story became even more important to us. The story begins with the death of Old Al because he was, well, old! Deputy Phoebe Korneal gets involved and suspects something more sinister is afoot. Then we discover he had an absentee wife, his kid who dropped out of high school shows up, and Colorado history completes the backdrop of the story. None of which was planned!

We love Colorado history and “The Last Hurrah” became the path to use it. 

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book? 

Every day is a new learning curve! And the learning curves at our age — Judy is 77, Jean is 73 — are steep. We are still surprised at how little we know about writing, editing, and now marketing. 

We love to write, but this marketing and self-promotion stuff is like nothing either of us expected. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

There have been many challenges. One is creating believable characters, and another is making sure the story line is kept in the right order. Once the writing was tweaked and finalized, our next hurdle was to get it edited. We found out this is a grueling process. 

Next, we had to get the book published. To do this, it is all about the correct format, a great looking cover and a back cover that sells, and editing to the nth degree.After that, you have to jump on the social media freight train—feed and water regularly. We were raised using slow, plodding manual typewriters, not today’s fast-paced technology.

The list goes on: there’s editing, selling, interviewing, book signings, and Book Two! We enlisted the help of our friends and family for editing, learned how to design and build our own web site, entered a few contests, and now shamelessly promote the book. We recognized our limitations and in the end, hired a friend to edit what we thought was already tight. Ha.

We were surprised and thrilled to make the finalist status in the Colorado Authors League awards for 2021. We spoke on the phone and tried to remember just what we had entered. Remember we’re up there in age and frequently yesterday is a mystery.

Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?

The story is meant to be a light mystery. Calling it cozy would not adequately describe our writing, with the way cozy is being used today. Light, yes, cozy, well, not so much.

Our readers have expressed angst and trepidation over the ending but we assure our readers, with book two, “The Last Slide,” the story will circle back and satisfy their questions from the ending of the first book.

Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write? 

We are co-authors but not co-located. By itself this is tricky. We know enough technically to be dangerous. We are stubborn to the point of ridiculousness for the stick-to-it-ness needed to figure out how to use that “interweb thang” so we can write, edit, rewrite, laugh, and embellish without being in the same room.

We write and then use internet video to meet every other day, mostly. Judilee is in Florida and Wyoming and GaGa is in Buena Vista and Manitou Springs. No chance we’re going to be able to duke it out face to face. Respect and grow is how we write. The usual comment is, “Let’s do this, how about that, and then…did we already write that?” It’s fun and thank goodness we don’t have to earn our living by writing. GaGa usually tells Judilee, “Just enough money to keep us in cigarettes and jukebox quarters.”

How did Colorado history influence your writing?

As we mentioned, we share an interest in Colorado history and the effect it’s had on our state. It’s changing now, of course, but it’s important that we keep one foot in our state’s roots and balance our lives with current opportunities.

For our story, we shamelessly use history to move the characters ahead and strengthen their personalities. Let’s face it, where we come from matters and in “The Last Slide” it also stamps the town of Oresville with an indelible foundation. Gee, this sure sounds like Leadville, Colorado, doesn’t it?

Gold mining in Colorado was a significant kickoff for the understanding of how we use natural resources to further economic development. We used gold mining in the central mountains of Colorado as a historical example of how those resources were used in the 1800’s. 

Tell us about your next project.

Our next book, “The Last Slide,” is book two in a trilogy and was published in November. Book three is planned for next year and ideas are coming in already from some outrageous thinkers we have met along the way.

We want readers to know where to find us. BnGBooks.com is our website and our protagonist, Phoebe Korneal, has her own gmail: PhoebeKorneal@gmail.com.