The Handmaid and the Carpenter

by Elizabeth Berg

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An exclusive Authorlink interview with Elizabeth Berg
Author of The Handmaid and the Carpenter (Random House, 2006)

by Ellen Birkett Morris

November, 2006

Novelist Elizabeth Berg believes in the power of the unconscious. So when she woke up from a deep sleep with the words of a conversation between the biblical characters Mary and Joseph ringing in her head, she went downstairs and wrote them down.

“I believe in the wisdom of the unconscious. There is a story that wants to be told.’




“I believe in the wisdom of the unconscious. There is a story that wants to be told. Writers need to shed their self consciousness, get out of the way, and tell it,” said Berg.


Following her own advice, Berg has created an engaging portrait of the birth of Jesus in The Handmaid and the Carpenter. The novel, full of rich details about the time period, portrays the meeting and marriage of Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ birth and Joseph’s death.

Berg offers interesting human portraits of the well-known biblical figures. In her portrayal, Mary is lusty, curious and full of life. Joseph is drawn to tradition and often beset by doubts about the nature of his young wife’s pregnancy.

"What kind of enduring



love and faith does it take

for a man to stand by a

woman that others

want to stone?"


Questions of faith are at the heart of the story. “I’ve always wondered what (the Immaculate Conception) must have been like for Joseph. What kind of enduring love and faith does it take for a man to stand by a woman that others want to stone?” reflected Berg.


Berg began with the idea that she would tell a story that was a radical departure from the common version of the Christmas story. In her version, there was to be a rape. However, when it came time for her to write that scene “the miracle took over.”

“I am not a religious person, but writing this book, and the notion of believing in miracles, gave me such comfort. I hope that people can read it and feel closer to whatever it is that gives them spirituality. The book is escapism, but escapism into love, beauty, dignity and faith in the broadest definition of the word,” said Berg.

She did extensive research into what people of that period wore, how they spoke and what they ate in the hope of humanizing the characters. The result is a vivid portrait of love.

"I don't set out to do



a book a year, it just

happened that way."



Exploring the intricacies of human relationships is nothing new to bestselling author Berg, who has written over 15 novels, including The Year of Pleasures, Joy School, and Open House.


“I don't set out to do a book a year, it just happened that way. The ideas keep coming–I guess I haven't finished saying what I want to,” said Berg.

Her stories are marked by dialogue that captures the dynamic of male-female communication in an insightful way.

“Observation is vitally important. I think most writers are born with the habit of noticing. “Writers at a party are not the ones dancing. They are standing in the corner taking notes,” said Berg.

While writing, Berg said characters will “show up,” sparked by a bit of overhead dialogue or an idea she had written down earlier. She works without plotting. “I don’t know what will happened from one day to the next. But, I may know my last line or write toward a specific ending,” Berg noted.

"When I write, I don’t think



about anything but the lure

of the story . . ."


“When I write, I don’t think about anything but the lure of the story,” she said. Berg works “as long as it feels good,” starting her day in the morning “as close to the sleep state as possible.” She wrote The Handmaid and the Carpenter over a period of six months.


While Berg has always written, she first wrote for publication in her mid-30s. “My daughters were four and nine and I wanted a way to work at home,” she explained. She sent personal essays to magazines and got work writing for Parents Magazine. She went on to write for a wide array of women’s magazines.

"The best way to learn



about writing is to read

good books . . . "


She had pursued an English degree from the University of Minnesota earlier, dropping out when she discovered “what I wanted to learn wasn’t taught in the classroom.” She went on to get an associate’s degree in nursing and worked in that field for a time.


When it comes to writing, she is a natural. “You can learn technique and marketing, but you can’t teach someone how to be a good writer. The best way to learn about writing is to read good books,” said Berg. She is a fan of authors Alice Munro, Richard Ford and Anne Tyler.

Berg believes that writers are “born and not made.” “For me, writing is how I come to understand the world,” she added.

When asked if her early work as a freelance writer informed her novel writing, Berg noted that whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction “the onus is on you to point out interesting details and maintain the flow of the story.”

When she was working her first novel, she got the names of several agents from her editor at Parent’s Magazine. She went to New York to meet with the agents and settled on Lisa Bankoff of International Creative Management (ICM). Berg has a multi-book deal with Random House and works with Editor Kate Medina.

". . . be honest, respectful



and listen more than

you talk."


“Kate doesn’t have a heavy hand and I really try to get my work in fine shape before sending it to her,” said Berg. She advises writers working with an editor for the first time to “be honest, respectful and listen more than you talk.” She also urges writers to consider how busy editors are and not to get put off if they don’t respond immediately.


Her advice on writing is to “respect the unconscious, have fun and take risks.” She urges new writers to be less self conscious and not censor themselves as they write a first draft.

“Remember, you are the only one who has to see your work. If you don’t like something you’ve written you can always take it out later,” explained Berg.

She cautioned that publication should be secondary to the love of writing. “When you have something ready to be published, do your research. In the end, good writing wins out. Publishers need writers as much as writers need publishers.”

Her next novel, Dream When You're Feeling Blue, the story of three sisters during World War Two, will hit book stores in May.


Elizabeth Berg is the New York Times bestselling author of many novels. She resides in Chicago.

About Regular Contributor



Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.