Geraldine Brooks speaks with humor and heart

— Photo by Dan Waters

Speaking from the heart about her early life as a writer, and pausing along the way to reflect on language, heritage, and the nature of the human imagination, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks kicked off the Speakeasy Series on October 26, at State Road Restaurant.

The author series, a benefit for the West Tisbury Library Foundation Inc., was the brainchild of Mary and Jackson Kenworth, owners of the restaurant and enthusiastic supporters of the library’s renovation and expansion efforts.

Elegantly draped in near-Puritanical black, Ms. Brooks stood before the rough-hewn stone fireplace in the main dining room and talked about her early days as a sports reporter at the Sydney Morning Herald. It was an assignment that, if nothing else, brought home the importance of factual precision.

Bookmakers, who took bets that depend on accurately reported odds, could be made very unhappy with even a single wrong statistic.

Newspaper work, with its relentless deadlines, was also very good at dispelling any notion of preciousness about the writing process.

“I don’t believe in writer’s block any more than I believe in hairdresser’s block,” Ms. Brooks said with a wry smile, comparing the writer’s daily discipline with building a stonewall. You work with the materials at hand, often struggling because they (or you) may be inadequate to the task. Doing this work is essential even though in the end, she said, you may have to attack it with a backhoe and tear it all down.

Clearly the journalist’s habit of research has paid off. Writing “Caleb’s Crossing,” Ms. Brooks needed a foundation on which to build the novel. This meant knowing such things as which titles a 17th-century minister might keep in his library, and what word a 17th-century midwife might use to write about a fetus (answer: “shapeling”).

In her gentle, husky voice, still tinged with some Down Under flavorings, Ms. Brooks said readers sometimes challenge her right to speak in the voice of someone unlike herself. She responded that she would be very limited if she could only write about middle-aged white women from Sydney who came of age in the 1960s. She said she rejected the notion of “apartheid of the imagination.”

Instead, to make a world real for the reader, she relies on research and — where the facts trail off — her ability to spin an imaginary bridge.

After her talk, Ms. Brooks invited questions from an audience that turned out to be full of curiosity about her work and her writing process.

The Speakeasy Series continues Tuesday, Nov. 29 at 5:30 pm with Tony Horwitz, Ms. Brooks’ husband and the author of the just-released book “Midnight Rising,” a part-narrative, part-biographical account of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.

Award-winning poets Fanny Howe and Jennifer Tseng will speak on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012 at 5:30 pm.

Hors d’oeuvres and light refreshments are served at all series events. Tickets are $125, and space is limited. For reservations, call Carol Brush: 508-693-3489.

Dan Waters of West Tisbury is the secretary of the West Tisbury Library’s Board of Trustees.

Correction: A earlier version of this story incorrectly identified a series of sentences praphrasing Ms. Brooks’ remarks about the writing process as quotes.