Sitting at a West County coffee shop, fiction writer Daniel Coshnear blends in with the cross-generational crowd sipping coffee on a chilly afternoon.
With his wool cap and stubbly beard flecked with gray, the 51-year-old author looks a lot like the ordinary heroes he writes about in his short stories, regular folks who hold down jobs as teachers and counselors, grocery clerks and janitors.
There is a whiff of despair about these characters, as they struggle through a gauntlet of broken marriages, needy friends and aging parents. But like the author's piercing blue eyes, the stories also convey a playful sense of humor and honesty that is astonishingly wise and clear-eyed.
Coshnear's first book of stories, "Occupations & Other Preoccupations," won the 2003 Bay Area Book Reviewer's Association Award and was selected by novelist Rosellen Brown as the winner of the Willa Cather Fiction Prize.
"Coshnear writes about a dozen kinds of desperation and a few kinds of peace with mordant wit and the kind of emotional exactitude that clear the reader's vision the way a sharp new flavor clears and challenges the palate," Brown wrote. "He is a thrilling discovery."
Coshnear's local fans include Sonoma writer Bart Schneider, founder of Kelly's Cove Press in Berkeley, who published the author's new collection, "Occupy & Other Love Stories," this fall in an attractive paperback illustrated with art by Oakland painter Squeak Carnwath.
"Dan's generosity of spirit comes through full-throated in his writing," Schneider said. "I'm drawn to the heart in his stories, to his uncanny ability to plumb the emotional depths of his characters in the guise of down-to-earth, straight-ahead writing."
Coshnear, who teaches writing at the UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University extension programs, has worked in various types of mental health facilities since the early 1980s.
In Sonoma County, he works nights at a group home for the homeless and runs a reading and writing group at a group home for men and women with mental illness and substance abuse issues.
"I come in and try to show them respect and wonder," he said simply. "Then they're not beating themselves up."
In all of his jobs — writer, teacher, caretaker — Coshnear strives for authenticity.
"I think the challenge of the mental health worker is very closely related to the challenge of the fiction writer," he said. "To keep it — to make it — real and personal."
One of his writing tricks is to start out stories with humor, such as a silly joke.
"Things strike me as funny, and that's a nice place to start," he said. "Humor draws people in. It draws me in."
Once started, his stories tend to spiral downward, creating connection through a shared sense of loss.
"The way I write, it's like feeling your way in the dark," he said. "You don't know if it's going to catch fire — not just your imagination, but your emotions."
The son of an attorney and a social worker, Coshnear was born and raised in Baltimore during the turbulent 1960s and '70s.
During high school, he set off with his older brother — Richard Coshnear, a Santa Rosa immigration attorney — on a cross-country hitchhiking trip that changed his life.
"Loneliness is a big part of writing," he said. "When you travel, you spend a lot of time writing letters. ... You're always a stranger to people."