THE WRITING LIFE: Alison Moore sits back in a booth at a Tucson grill. It's the untrendy kind of neighborhood place where the waitress' hair is out to here and where she actually hovers over customers, trying to make sure they have everything they need.

"No, I don't need any more coffee," Moore is obliged to tell her several times over during the course of an hour.

It's actually kind of nice to see Moore get that kind of nurturing, if slightly annoying, attention. Moore is a Tucson fiction writer whose first novel, Synonym for Love, was published last year to good reviews. The novel, a heart-breaking, impressionistic account of a teenage girl growing up in a strangely inattentive family, is based more or less on the author's own life. It's enough to give a listener goose bumps when Moore says that yes, some of the most painful stuff in the book--a mother dying at an early age, a father withdrawing, a young girl fleeing to the dangers of the highway--are things that happened to her.

"The reason I write it as fiction," she says evenly, "is that it's a better way to get at metaphorical truth. The truth as it happened isn't always interesting. But the book is emotionally true. Many of the incidents in it were created to embody what I felt I needed to say."

Moore got hired last fall as a tenure-track assistant professor of fiction writing in the UA creative writing program. (She'll give a reading from her works on Valentine's Day as part of the UA Poetry Center's reading series.) She'd already been in Tucson nine years, during which time she'd gotten a master's degree and had led a "patched-together life" teaching as an adjunct at the UA, at Pima, at Extended University and at Tucson/Pima Library, doing arts administration, working as a freelance typesetter. It's a strange, new experience for her to be in a secure, full-time position.

"It's a very different kind of life to have," she says. "I've been living on the edge so long. It takes the pressure off, relieves the financial stress so you can write. And I love teaching! It keeps me honest, keeps me stretching. Writing is so introverted and teaching is a collaborative kind of thing."

Moore's earlier years of living on the edge have paid off in her writing, though. An earlier book of short stories, Small Spaces Between Emergencies, was praised in The New York Times Book Review for celebrating the "capacity of the human spirit to create the fragile but necessary connections we need to survive."

"So much of my work is about people trying to get their bearings," she says, "about people who can't stay."

pix Moore's own parents were roamers, she says, and when asked where she's from she replies, "Everywhere."

"My father used to say I got my literary start because I was conceived in the Harriet Beecher Stowe caretaker's cottage (in New England)."

She was born in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where her parents, both writers, had started up their own newspaper. But the family moved a year later to Queens, then later to Battle Creek, Michigan, and later to a "jerk-water town" in Virginia. Her mother died when she was 8.

"When I was 12 I hitchhiked from Virginia to New York. I wanted to stow away on a ship." That horrifying trip, finally re-created in the novel, left Moore mainly with "stories that I couldn't tell," at least then. She left home for good at 14 to live with an older half-brother in New York City and eventually wandered out to Haight-Ashbury. She spent about 15 years in San Francisco, broken up by a four-year stint in Saudi Arabia with her then-husband. It was during the San Francisco years that she began to write poetry. One volume of poetry was published before she came to Tucson.

"It was like coming home," she says of her first glimpse of the desert. "I've moved around so much in my life. I feel I've found a place I could live....It's a landscape that's intense and dramatic. You can see the weather coming. There's just something about the desert. Even in the Bible, the desert is a place where you go to be stripped down."

That stripped-down life has been good for her writing. While in Tucson, she got her MFA in creative writing through a limited-residency program called the Warren Wilson Program for Writers in North Carolina. Her book of short stories, which she wrote as a thesis for her master's degree, was accepted for publication the same week she graduated. While she was writing the novel, an extract was published in Ms. magazine. Mercury House, a small press, published the novel, and Penguin Books will bring out a paperback edition next summer. She recently published some non-fiction essays about a trip to Indonesia, and right now she's immersed in the writing of a novella.

Things are going well in her writing life, but you get the feeling Moore still can't quite believe it's all true.

"I feel extraordinarily lucky to be doing what I'm doing," she says.

Alison Moore will give a free reading from her work at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, February 14, in the UA Modern Languages Auditorium. For more information call 321-7760. TW

--Margaret Regan
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