Senior author cranks out novels for fun

MIDDLEBURY — Betty Hampel makes it very clear that it’s not about the money. Just like her cat Cricket thrives on “sunshine and love,” she’s taken a similar approach to her writing. 
“Artists are this way,” the Middlebury author said. “As long as they’ve got somewhere warm to sleep, food to eat, something to write on, they’re fine. You really don’t need much else.” 
Hampel is proof of this. Even with macular degeneration straining her eyes and a weakened immune system from generalized myasthenia gravis she’s not slowed down in the creativity department. At 87, she continues her 50-year passion for painting and she recently published her 10th novel.
“Some health problems are in my genes, but maybe writing is as well,” she said.
Hampel grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., next door to the home of the Roosevelt family; her father, a cab driver, was sometimes called to drive President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and other dignitaries. She also lived next door to the library, and her mother, who was friends with the librarians, began taking her there before little Betty could walk.
“I lived in the library,” Hampel said.
Hampel grew up during the Second World War and didn’t complete school beyond eighth grade. But tests said she was certified to work at a higher level and she was able to find work in her 20s with an insurance company in Utica.
She recalled that in Utica she experienced life in a neighborhood largely controlled by organized crime, and Hampel still remembers the unsolved murders in her neighborhood. One man was found in a well, another had his house burned down while he was in it. But the toughs never bothered her, she said, because they deemed her “acceptable.” Before deciding to leave for Burlington, Vt., she said, the bosses asked her to write a letter to Tammany Hall, the office of the mayor in New York City.
“They said the Kennedys were trouble and had to be dealt with,” she said.
Hampel wrote about the experience but was told she had to wait 50 years before she could publish the story. She never did and she said she never told anyone about the things she saw.
After her experiences in Utica, she decided it was time for a change of scenery.
Hampel had been working in Burlington for just six months before someone noted she had picked up the mannerisms and even the accent of some Vermonters. She decided she needed a hobby and on a whim decided to take an evening painting class at the University of Vermont. Her teachers noticed a natural talent and encouraged her to continue on to another class — this one with the man who would eventually become her husband, Harrison Hampel.
“He was a brilliant man and I wasn’t about to let somebody like that out of my hands,” she said.
Betty was 39 and Harrison was 47 when they married in 1967.
The two spent their honeymoon in Middlebury before they moved back to Burlington “to make a living,” as Betty Hampel put it. They worked in in the Queen City — he at UVM, she at the Smith Bell & Thompson insurance agency before health issues caused them to return to Middlebury. Harrison succumbed to lung cancer in 2000 and Betty has remained in Middlebury since. She painted his portrait, and it still hangs in her apartment, surrounded by dozens of other paintings completed by the couple in their 30 years of marriage. 
After Harrison’s death, Hampel fell into depression and was encouraged to continue her creative pursuits. As a result, she decided to take up creative writing. Having been a lifetime reader, she found the introduction effortless.
“I just dove into the writing water,” she said.
Her first novel “Gumshoe,” follows the story of an incompetent private eye who flees New York City on a case that leads him up the Hudson River Valley.
Hampel follows a creative process that is totally free of form or structure. Before she learned to use a typewriter or a computer, she wrote all of her stories by hand. She does most of her writing in the afternoons and follows a plot that goes where she pleases.
“I never know what I’m going to do,” she said of the process of creating plots for her novels. “I start with one sentence and that’s all I need. I go on from there. Some of these real hot shot authors talk about planning their works. But I don’t understand how they do that because I have no idea what the characters are going to do next.”
Her own technique appears to be paying off. Aside from publishing her 10 books, Hampel’s gotten calls from readers telling her they can’t put her books down.
“Now that is a real compliment,” she said. “That’s better than any amount of money.” 
In the course of explaining the plots of her books, sometimes she has trouble remembering how her own stories end.
“It’s just like my painting,” she said. “I can do a painting and the next day I can’t remember it — it’s gone. When I write, I finish a story and then I forget it. I just go write on to the next one.”
This year, Hampel published her latest book, “Once a Gypsy.” The novel follows her female heroine, Cassie Connelly, as she uncovers her Romani heritage. Hampel says she writes most of her books for young women and wanted to write about the experience of Romani peoples, also commonly known as gypsies, during the Second World War, when millions were sentenced to forced labor and imprisonment in concentration camps. 
At 246 pages, “Once a Gypsy” is the longest work she’s completed. While she insists her books write themselves, she said she was particularly pleased with this one’s conclusion.
“It ended the way it should’ve,” she said.
Hampel says she anticipates she has at least 10 more books to write. And while she contemplates her next piece, she’s a voracious reader. In addition to fiction and nonfiction she courteously told a reporter that she reads every issue of the Addison Independent from cover to cover — starting at the back. 
“I guess I’m just a backwards girl,” she joked. 
As she’s lost some of her vision, Hampel is starting to use Dragon, a piece of audio transcription software, to write her next book. She says this novel will be about a kidnapped girl with no recollection of her identity who is transported to Canada under cover of darkness.
Hampel has her sights set on living to at least 110 and she has more books to write. While she may not get out around town as much as she used to, writing, she said, is a perfectly suitable escape.
“I enjoy doing this,” she said. “This is one way to get out of the house and it’s easy.”

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