In Dan T. Cox‘s fiction, people’s hearts and minds run as deep as Oregon’s North Santiam Canyon, and their relationships and paths through life get just as complicated as that remote, rugged landscape.
Cox lives in Ridgefield now, but he grew up about 30 miles east of Salem, Ore., in the canyon town of Mill City, and he’s published a book of literary short stories about a set of vividly drawn characters entitled “The Canyon Cuts Both Ways.”
Cox said his mother was an orderly school librarian and grammar corrector while his inventive, artistic father was functionally illiterate in the days before dyslexia was a diagnosis.
“He had a way of problem-solving and tool-making that allowed him to navigate life in his own way,” Cox said. “He knew how to make something out of nothing.”
The contradictions, frictions and surprises in that upbringing “definitely factored into my creative leanings from about eighth grade on,” said Cox, 67. Having a “rock star” writing teacher in high school helped too, he added.
Cox wrote sports columns while still in high school for the now-defunct Mill City Enterprise, studied journalism at the University of Oregon and then went into a creative advertising career. He worked his way up from writing copy to owning his own agency and working on major national campaigns. (An early client was Starbucks, and Cox said he used to make personal ad pitches to CEO Howard Schultz.)
In 1998 Cox was sitting in Los Angeles International Airport, returning from a work trip, and mourning the recent death of this father. His own time was finite, he realized, and he had important writing to do that wasn’t advertising. He pulled out a yellow pad and tried to write a scene, right there in the airport. Cox, now semi-retired, has been writing ever since.
Cox’s first book of stories, “A Bigger Piece of Blue,” was published in 2017. “The Canyon Cuts Both Ways” is his second book.
A girl meets the love of her life on a homemade dance floor in a cow pasture. A boy on a hunting trip explores his darkest feelings while night falls, until he cannot see what’s coming at him. The local tow truck driver discovers his neighbors’ extramarital escapades while hauling their wrecked car away. Two boys exact shocking revenge on a teacher who molests students.
“My stories are character-driven,” Cox said. “These people are all very real to me and I care about them greatly — but they’re not all great people.”
It’s not uncommon in these stories for loneliness to drive characters astray, or into conversations and conflicts with people who are not there.
“In my younger life I had arguments all the time, in my head — arguments I wasn’t really having but maybe should have,” he said.
Writing those arguments into his stories lets him explore who he was and why he processed life that way, he said.
“Self-examination all the time” is the writer’s lot, he said.
Cox faces the blank page first thing every morning, he said.
“My assignment is to put my fingers on the keyboard,” he said. “Even if you don’t feel it, even if you write a paragraph of crap, you keep going.
“More often than not, if you push through there’s a reward. It’s three pages later and the coffee is gone and I’ve written something.”
Cox’s literary stories have earned lavish praise from serious reviewers. The San Francisco Book Review has drawn comparisons with John Steinbeck and Flannery O’Connor. But “The Canyon Cuts Both Ways” is self-published through Ingraham Content Group, a print-on-demand distributor that reaches around the world. The book is available for $14 at indiebound.org and amazon.com.
Cox said he went that way because established publishing houses are interested in novels, not books of short stories.
“I don’t have a novel in me,” he said.
Short stories take just as much work, he said. Cox has been compressing and polishing some of the graceful, introspective stories in “The Canyon Cuts Both Ways” for 20 years, he said. “All of these are long in development,” he said. “I’ve rewritten them so many times, I’ve lost track.”
Unless you’re very lucky there’s little money to be made in this kind of serious, literary fiction, Cox said, but that’s OK with him.
“I just want to find my audience,” he said. “I just want somebody to find it, embrace it, feel something deep inside when they read it.”