Author Lorrie Moore is about to leave the building, the UW's Helen C. White Hall, to be exact. She's headed to Nashville, where she'll assume an endowed chair in Vanderbilt University's English department this fall.
In recent years, Vanderbilt has claimed several of the UW's most sought-after creative writing teachers, including poet Rick Hilles and fiction writer Nancy Reisman. Moore might be the most coveted of all.
With a resume that includes an O. Henry Award and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Moore is one of Madison's most esteemed residents. She's also one of the most reclusive. There's an air of mystery about her, the kind that makes her students speculate about the minutiae of her life: her preferred TV programs, her favorite flavor of pudding, the worst pick-up line she's ever heard. These are the kinds of details she might use to introduce one of her characters. She has a gift for exposing anxieties, assumptions and lapses in judgment with devastating humor, then shaping them into poignant portraits of modern life.
Poet Ron Wallace recruited Moore for the university's nascent creative writing program before she'd even published her first book, a short-story collection titled Self-Help. This was in 1984, when Moore was a 27-year-old wondering if creative writing was a viable career choice.
"I founded the program here in 1978, and Lorrie was the second writer I hired," he says. "We advertised, and Lorrie applied. When I read the manuscript for Self-Help, I leaped out of my seat and started reading lines from it in the hallway so others could hear them. They were incredibly funny but also moving and lyrical. I knew we had to bring her to Madison."
When the book debuted in 1985, it was an immediate hit. In The New York Times, Jay McInerney, author of Bright Lights, Big City, noted that its stories are "witty and intelligent, addicted to wordplay and other forms of verbal self-defense, but they know their wit and intelligence can't save them from love, loss of love, death."
By parodying self-help books' imperative mood and unattainable promises, she had struck gold. But that was just the beginning. Moore's star continued to rise as she settled into her teaching role. During her tenure, she wrote six books, including the best-selling short-story collection Birds of America (1998) and the novel A Gate at the Stairs (2009), which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.
"She very quickly became what many people say is the best writer alive today," Wallace says. "She is distinguished in the field and beloved by both writers and students. Her student evaluations are consistently at the top. We got one last year that had just one word: hallelujah."
Moore's reputation has been a major draw for prospective students, especially those seeking MFAs in fiction writing. Wallace says that thousands of students typically apply for this graduate program's six slots. Poets & Writers magazine, one of the go-to publications for both aspiring and established writers, ranked the UW's creative writing program number 3 in the nation last year.
"We'll see how losing her affects our rankings," Wallace says. "I can say for certain that we'll miss her mightily."
Wallace expects the UW English department to hire a replacement for Moore, but says that university leaders have been eliminating vacated positions in an effort to cut costs.
He also notes how Moore was a "magnet" for other notable authors.
"She is good friends with a number of very distinguished writers and has convinced them to come here for readings and residencies, at a fraction of the cost they might be otherwise," he says.
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt faculty are trying to contain their excitement.
"Lorrie's the most influential short story writer working in America, and has been for the last 20 years," Vanderbilt English professor Tony Earley remarked in a news release. "Ordinarily I would say that our MFA students have no idea how lucky they are, but they know exactly how lucky they are. They actually shouted with joy when they heard. I did, too, but first I made sure nobody could hear me."
Wallace says it's rare for a writer of Moore's caliber to stay at one university for nearly three decades, and that staying in Madison for so long shows how much she believes in the UW's students and creative writing program.
"She's one of the best decisions I've made in my life," he says.