Malibu might not be the place you'd choose to live if you wanted to get away from it all. With such neighbors as Steven Spielberg, Cher and Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, you might be distracted by tourists and paparazzi and helicopters with strobe lights.

Not novelist Brian Moore.

The Belfast-born Canadian citizen who moved there 26 years ago to write a screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock has his own reasons for staying. "I'm probably the only writer in America who lives in Malibu to be alone," he says.

Indeed, Moore is an outsider by choice. To him that's what a writer is. That way he can spend time with the people in his books. "I get very involved with my characters," he says.

Moore lives in a house by the ocean with a big garden his wife, Jean, tends and a lonely strip of beach that reminds him of the Irish beaches of his childhood. Not part of the L.A. social or political scenes, he prefers to stay at home. "I think most writers are observers," he says. "And they write better if they have a happy, quiet life. You can devote more time to your writing."

After all, when he finishes writing a book, or just gets bored, he can always leave town -- and return convinced he has chosen the lifestyle that suits him. "I can go to New York and London to see the same old faces and be glad I'm not there," he says. "In New York, you find serious writers getting interested in how much money people make. I find it all very dispiriting."

He can go to Europe too. And for about three months each year he does, spending most of his time in England, Ireland and France.

Brian Moore (pronounced Breean in Northern Ireland and by friends and family, and Brian for simplicity's sake in America) was born to a Catholic family. An uncle was an official of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Although his father and brothers were doctors, Moore's talents clearly lay elsewhere. But it was not his desire to write that prompted him to leave home; he became disenchanted with Northern Irish life because of his inability to embrace Catholicism.

World War II provided the means of escape. Moore joined the British Ministry of War Transport, working first in the Mediterranean and then in Warsaw. In 1948 he immigrated to Canada, where he became a reporter for the Montreal Gazette, which he eventually left to write books. After living in Canada for seven years and New York for seven more, he moved to California.

But Northern Ireland and its concerns linger at the center of Moore's life. They are the backdrop for his most recent book, "Lies of Silence," his 16th novel and one of the five finalists this week for the prestigious Booker Prize, Britain's annual literary bonanza.

Set in contemporary Belfast, the book focuses on the manager of a grand old hotel, the neurotic and self-absorbed wife he no longer loves and the young mistress he would like to accompany to a new life in London. When the husband and wife become hostages to an IRA bomb plot, the hotel keeper is forced into a terrifying dilemma: Does he try to save his wife or the guests in his hotel?

What interested Moore was the extremity of the situation. "I like to start at the moment of crisis," says the 69-year-old author, who was in Washington recently to talk about his book. "For most of us, it's our private life that counts -- our love affairs, our marriage."

Like this book, most of Moore's novels -- the best known include "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne," "The Luck of Ginger Coffey," "I Am Mary Dunne," "The Doctor's Wife" -- revolve around characters faced with a moral decision. "Something they believed in has been shattered," he says. "And they are forced to reconsider their lives.

"We all have dreams when we're young," he continues, "a political or religious belief or talent that we hope will liberate us. Most people lose the belief or find that they don't have the talent. Being confronted with that -- with what is probably your real self -- can be a moment of crisis. What you do and how you handle it interests me."

Moore, a modest man with a quick smile, a soulful face and an accent that leaves no doubt about his origins, has managed to avoid such crises. He came close, after immigrating to Canada, when the end of a love affair with an older woman left him shattered and alone in a new country, and closer still when an early marriage failed.

But as he sees it, he came closest when he left the Gazette to try his hand at fiction. To his amazement, it worked. "I could have been unlucky," he says. "But I had a happy solution. I'd had the illusion I was a writer -- but I had no university degree and I'd reached the age of 27 without really writing. I suddenly said, 'This is it: Sit down and write a novel.' That was the crisis. I often wonder what would have happened if I hadn't solved it."

Instead, he has always been more or less successful. Not as successful as Graham Greene, who has described Moore as his "favorite living author," or John Updike, who people know they should read even if they haven't. But Moore's books, which have generally been greeted with critical favor, have sold slowly and steadily over the years. For example, his first book, "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne," about an alcoholic Irish spinster in her forties, a story that even Moore describes as "terribly depressing," has been in print for more than 30 years. But it has never been a bestseller, and until it was published in England, it was turned down by 12 American publishing houses.

"I think I'm lucky," says Moore, who until recently was too nervous to accept book advances -- just in case the books didn't sell well. "I've always made enough money. I've had an international audience, and it's always added up to a living."

In his personal life, he has managed (mostly) to avoid the romantic conflicts that many of his characters confront. Or at least he has since his second marriage 26 years ago.A writer praised for his believable portrayals of female characters, Moore seems to prefer the company of women. Close to his mother and sisters during his childhood, he points out that he has always lived with a woman -- and gladly.

"In any normal day of my life I will have spent it with a woman," he says. "Men roll their credits to each other, not listening. But women will often tell you something quite interesting. It's novelistic. I'm always listening to women's conversation. As a writer, I'd be foolish not to."

His attention to what other people have to say has been one of the factors in four of his books being made into movies (Moore himself wrote two of the screenplays). In all likelihood, so has the generally short length of his novels. (He likes to imagine readers taking in the books in one or two sittings. "Writers are like runners," he observes. "Everybody has a best distance.")

Despite all the time he has lived in Southern California, Moore has mixed feelings about the movie industry. His early experience with Hitchcock was not a joy, and he'd just as soon not criticize the films made from the two books for which he didn't write the screenplays.

In his view, dealing with Hollywood can be frustrating. "Americans always want to pretty-up the end of the book -- to ruin it," he says. Nevertheless, he is optimistic about "Black Robe," a film he is working on in Canada with Australian director Bruce Beresford. "It's extraordinary to work with a director who is so literate," he says. "Under these circumstances, the experience can be wonderful."

Moore admitsthat one of the difficulties Hollywood has had with his books (and could with this newest one too) is that the endings often are bleak. "That's the way things tend to go," he admits cheerfully. "If a character goes through a crisis and doesn't solve it, I don't solve it for them."

To him that is simply not a problem. "I tried to write about a wholly good person once," Moore muses. "But I killed him off at the end of the book."

"Somehow to me that wasn't an unhappy ending."