My books are about abnormal people. To me everything which seems normal is abnormal, it's the abnormal people in life who are normal.
If you've never read any of Bernice Rubens' novels, you might find them a little unsettling at first; I sure did. It's not just the covers of the recent Abacus editions, which feature paintings of solitary characters with weird distorted bodies and strange staring eyes. It's also the content of the stories themselves. The protagonists are outsiders, loners plodding through their humdrum routines of tea or sherry, alone or living with family members they do not really know or love. They tend to harbour strange guilty secrets, the true nature of which is not clear to the reader at first - they turn out to be murderers or transvestites, or to suffer from multiple personality disorder. As their quirk becomes clear the uneasy confusion you've been feeling suddenly makes sense. It's weird and disorienting, this macabre kind of humour that Bernice Rubens excels at.
She displays the same deft blending of the mundane and the fantastic, the melancholy and the hilarious, when dealing with historical themes. Kingdom Come, for example, is set in seventeenth-century Poland and Turkey and tells the story of a man thought to be the new messiah, while I, Dreyfus is about the Dreyfus affair, a sensational French nineteenth-century case of anti-semitism. These and other offerings from Rubens are written in an easy, accessible style that belies their weightiness and intelligence.
Rubens was born in Cardiff, Wales, in 1928. Her father was a Russian Jew who emigrated to Wales, having bought a ticket in Hamburg which he thought, erroneously, would take him on to America. It was not to be, and he settled in Cardiff, part of a tight Jewish community. He and his wife had two daughters, two sons, and the family was always very close. The children played in a string quartet together until the recent death of a brother; Bernice played cello and piano. The themes of music, family, and Judaism run through her novels.
She was educated in Cardiff and studied at the university there, graduating with honours in English in 1947. She taught for a few years, then began to work in film as a director and script writer; she traveled in Africa and Asia working on documentaries for organizations like the UN, and in 1968 won an award for her documentary "Stress".
In those early days when she was starting out in film she thought she might also try writing a novel, and found it quite easy. Her first novel, and all subsequent ones, are written in one draft, in longhand. She even found a publisher, which she says was "very lucky"; even luckier was her fourth novel, The Elected Member, winning the Booker Prize. This success allowed her to leave the film work behind and make a living from writing, and she hasn't looked back since; a later book, A Five-Year Sentence was on the Booker shortlist. Two of her novels have been made into movies (I Sent a Letter to my Love and Madame Sousatzka).
In 1982 Rubens was made a fellow of the University of Wales, and was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1991. She is an active member of International PEN, an organization of poets, essayists, and novelists who work on behalf of writers around the globe who have been forced into silence for writing the truth as they see it.