AUBURN — After spending 40 years as a full-time professor at Cayuga Community College, Jeff Delbel has been more of a student in retired life.
He still teaches part-time through online courses, but much of Delbel's energy has been occupied by a separate interest: writing. The 64-year-old Auburn man has been working for around six years on a series of novels — the first of which, "The Flight of Jimmy Eagleson," was released Sunday.
Getting to that point, Delbel said, certainly invoked the adage, "The only writing is rewriting." He said more than 30 friends and acquaintances, including authors, have helped him through the revision process.
Learning to open up to criticism was new for Delbel, who retired as a philosophy professor in 2008. But writing the books, he said, was something he had always wanted to do with the story bouncing around in his head for several years, starting with "The Flight."
"The resolution and the friendships are, I think, the attraction of the book," he said.
Delbel will host a book signing at Downtown Books & Coffee in Auburn next month to celebrate the recent release.
The plot centers on Eagleson, a lawyer who struggles to find happiness despite his own personal wealth. Set mostly near Lake Champlain in the North Country region, Eagleson's tale sees him reconnect with longtime friends as he maneuvers his job, his love life after a divorce and a complex relationship with his father.
"The Flight" is dedicated to Delbel's uncle, James Lyman Eagleson, who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force. The real Eagleson only lived to be around 21 years old: Delbel said he died in 1944, shot down in a battle at Normandy during World War II.
Delbel keeps his uncle's wings pin and picture on a wall in his home. Though he never knew Eagleson, Delbel said he always found him a fascinating figure.
"In my mind, he's a hero. He gave his life, as did tens of thousands," he said. "I'm very pleased I had the opportunity to dedicate something to him that I think would relate."
Though the fictional Eagleson is not a veteran, his father — otherwise known as "The Old Man" — served in WWII.
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Jimmy's worldview of his father — that "The Old Man" had always been closer to Jimmy's friends than his own son — is shaken when he stumbles on a box of letters written by his father during wartime.
Along with the importance of strong friendships, Delbel said "The Flight" explores the theme of personal discovery.
"We all do this type of thing," he said. "When we don't know the whole story on things, we tend to fill in the blanks, do it negatively and cause ourselves a lot of anguish over things because we just can't accept that we don't know that maybe things are just fine."
In writing "The Flight," Delbel said he draws partly on his own personal experiences, such as his upbringing with his father and his own friendships.
Delbel, a Plattsburgh native, eventually moved to Auburn in 1975 after getting a degree from the University of Miami. He later earned a master's degree from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
Some distance existed between Delbel and his father, he said. It was nothing like Eagleson's estranged relationship, but Delbel said he never knew things about his father until the two shared deep talks later in life. To that point, Delbel had made assumptions about his father's worldview that were "completely nonsense."
"I think it's important for men to explore that with their fathers," he said.
Beyond those parallels, Delbel said he lets the characters write themselves, so to speak, by imagining how they would interact in a particular situation. He surprised himself at how different they ended up from their draft forms.
He finished a draft of "The Flight" about two years before its eventual release, going through revisions and taking the advice of an author friend to "be ahead of the curve" to write the second book.
That novel, "Salvatore," is in the final editing stages and will likely be released at some point next year, Delbel said. A third is almost done, as well.
"Whether it succeeds or not is a different story, but it does tell a unique story," Delbel said.