When David Updike compares himself, as a writer, to anyone in his family, it is usually to his grandmother. She published two collections of short stories under her maiden name, Linda Grace Hoyer, and lived on a farm in Pennsylvania until her death in 1989.
"Her own literary life was much closer to mine," Updike said. Updike recently published his second collection of short stories, "Old Girlfriends," and will read from them at Cornerstone Books in Salem on Wednesday evening.
"She didn't have another job, but her job was her house and her animals. She was kind of stealing time from that when she wrote," Updike said, "and I'm sort of stealing time from teaching when I write."
After graduating from Harvard in 1980, then "mucking around at odd jobs" for a few years, Updike attended Columbia Teachers College in New York, graduating with a master's degree in 1984. He has worked as a teacher ever since and is a professor of English at Roxbury Community College in Boston.
Not that Updike tries to avoid the literary legacy of his father, John Updike, one of America's best-known authors, who died this January at the age of 76.
In an essay published in 2004, Updike recalled a friend who encouraged him to remove his collection of his father's books from the top of his bookshelf, "on the grounds that their psychological weight was too much, and was probably inhibiting my own attempts to write."
"She didn't seem to grasp," Updike wrote, "that, even if I took them off the shelf and hid them in the closet, my father would still be here, with me, in this room, every time I sit down to write a line or two."
This intense closeness is echoed, and returned, in the dedication to "Old Girlfriends," where Updike embraces his parents, "who have always been with me and always will be."
Updike admits that, though he hasn't read all his father's books, he has always counted them among his favorite reading, "especially since his death."
His favorite of his father's works, "The Centaur," portrays a character based on John Updike's father, a high school teacher and coach in Pennsylvania.
"My father at one point said it was his favorite of his own, that there's a lot of love in that book," Updike said. "Which is true. His father was a very charismatic character."
But Updike credits the encouragement of another accomplished author, Ann Beattie, more than the example of his father, with his pursuit of writing. Beattie's favorable reaction to Updike's fiction, in her creative writing class at Harvard his senior year, "was the first time (his writing) was getting positive feedback." His first published short story appeared in The New Yorker magazine shortly thereafter.
Having settled in Cambridge with his wife, Wambui, who is originally from Kenya and teaches high school, and his son Wesley, named for his grandfather, Updike has stayed close to the North Shore and often roots his stories in this region.
He confesses that "Agawam," in a story from "Out on the Marsh," his first book, is actually Ipswich, and the narrator's feelings, when he describes the town as "my emotional center," reflect his own.
Updike was back in Ipswich as recently as this week to visit his mother.
"I jumped in Gould's Brook and went swimming," he said.
He once considered writing a nonfiction work about Ipswich on a 1973 murder case in which Gordon Haas was convicted of killing his wife, Shirley, and their two children.
The Haases, like Updike and his wife, were a biracial couple. Updike said he has examined that aspect of his own relationship in essays. Race is also an important factor in several stories in "Old Girlfriends."
In "Love Songs from America," a biracial couple and their son visit Africa and struggle to maintain the balance in their relationship as they explore unfamiliar territory.
"A Word With the Boy" describes an American returning to England, which he remembers as a civilized haven from America's troubles in the 1960s. What he finds instead are racist preconceptions, which he struggles to explain to his biracial son, but can finally only try to overcome with a hug.
Whatever the race of his characters, it is this terrain of family, surprising and even unsettling but always finally redemptive, that Updike shares with his father and has come to call his own.
David Updike will read from his new collection of short stories "Old Girlfriends" at Cornerstone Books, 45 Lafayette St., Salem, on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.