by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2003-10-15
It's not often you get invited over to an interviewee's home, but in the case of Welsh-born author Bernice Rubens that's just what happens. The 75-year-old, who has penned some 25 books including Madame Souzatska (1962), Brothers (1983) and the Booker-prize winning The Elected Member (1969) is doing the promotional rounds for her latest novel The Sergeant's Tale - much of which involves talking to an assortment of journalists in the conservatory of her spacious North London flat.
Based on true events, The Sergeant's Tale follows the fates of two young soldiers - one half-Jewish, half-Catholic, the other facing an identity crisis of his own - who are kidnapped in Palestine by Menachim Begin's Irgun terrorist movement, the year before the Israeli war of Independence. With the threat of execution hanging over them, the race is on to rescue the pair before they can meet their fate.
Of course Rubens is more than happy to promote the book, but she has her mind on other matters as well. Over coffee in the conservatory (where a catflap offers the only indication of other life in the flat), she immediately turns the tables on me, asking, "So tell me about you," the second the tape recorder is switched on. Being in the position of interviewee rather than interviewer is an odd one, but thankfully Rubens appears interested in the (admittedly mundane) information I tell her, having been unexpectedly put on the spot.
Rubens herself, meanwhile, litters our conversation with references to other interviews she has done recently, with a host of people who have not read her book. "I had one yesterday who said she hadn't. I told her to stop wasting my time and put the phone down." It's clear this is not a lady that you want to mess with. Luckily I have read the book - otherwise this could have been a short conversation - so once Rubens has finished interrogating me we have plenty to discuss - from her career and family background in the Cardiff Jewish community, through to the problems with modern literature.
One of the main storylines in The Sergeant's Tale concerns a half-Jewish, half-Catholic character who is trying to come to terms with his identity - what kind of research did you do for that?
I had to do a bit of research for the background of the two men. The actual general background I knew, from childhood, I was very young when it happened but I remember it very well. I come from a deeply devoted Zionist Jewish family, so I know the history of Israel. So from that respect I didn't have to do any. I've got an abiding interest in Israel obviously - so on that level I didn't have to do research, but on the individual level about the men - yes.
Did you go to Israel to do any research?
No, but I have been to Israel a number of times. I have a kind of habit - I write the book then I do the research to see if I got it right. That's what normally happens.
How important is it to you to include aspects of your family background in books?
Well obviously it plays a part with every writer, whether they admit it or not, even if you are not writing about your family directly you are writing about the influences that affected you as you grew up. All my books are affected by those influences, whether they're Jewish or not. There's a certain survival instinct there, from the fact that my father was a refugee and came to Cardiff accidentally - he could have been stuck in Germany - so the awareness of survival is always present in my mind, and I suppose that informs most of the stuff I write.
How important is it to you to have Jewish themes in your books?
Like I said, they're very important, because this is my childhood and my growing-up. I belonged to Habonim, for instance, all that influences one, even if you're not writing a Jewish book. I think I'm probably known as a Jewish writer even though of all the books I've written only about half a dozen were Jewish books.
What made you want to become an author in the first place?
No reason at all, I never wanted to. I just thought I'd have a go - I was teaching, I didn't want to teach, my children were in school. I was lucky and I want to stress that - I had no problem in publishing and I had good reviews for the first book so I thought I'd have a go at a second. Once you've done two, you're hooked. That's how it happened to me.
What do you enjoy most about the whole writing process?
I don't particularly enjoy writing, I love having written. I like having ideas - I can have them when I'm in bed or something, nowhere near my desk. Then I can develop them and when I get up I write them. They may not sound so good when you write them down, but I like that aspect very much, when you're developing in your mind. That's very exciting.
What was it like growing up in Cardiff?
It was rich, it was a very tight-knit Jewish community and it was Orthodox. There was no such thing as Liberal or anything like that. It was too tight-knit in a way - if someone married out you sat Shiva for them. Everybody know everyone else's business and that was a disadvantage. We were a little different. All my family were musicians except me - my brother was a prodigy - and we had non-Jews in the house coming to play. And that was a very rare thing in Cardiff to have a gentile over the threshold. It was that tight-knit. I was glad of it though because it broadened my horizons a bit. I was glad to leave Cardiff actually, it was stifling.
Did you miss teaching when you gave it up?
No, but I think I was a good teacher because I loved it so much. I think I've done my bit for teaching because I taught a lot of creative writing, and that's nice, when you discover a new talent. It's rare, but in the course of teaching over many years I have discovered two or three, which was very exciting.
Which of your books are you most proud of?
Brothers - I think that's the one I'm most happy to have written.
Do you have someone to type up your manuscripts for you?
I have a woman at the publisher's who's good at reading my writing - or sometimes I type it badly and she's good at reading it. I don't know what I'll do when she goes. She's always done my work.
What did you enjoy about working in the film industry?
I never made features, I enjoyed making documentaries. I think you can do a lot of good doing documentaries and I specialised in caring subjects. I started off just making films about mentally handicapped children, children in care, blind people - then I made a film about the parents of handicapped children which took off, that really worked and on the basis of that I got a contract at Granada to make films for then. Then - again, I've been so lucky - a friend of mine got a contract from the United Nations to do films all over the world, and first I went to Indonesia - so I've been lucky going all over the world a few times. So I made a film, wrote a book, made a film, wrote a book, and then there were no films any more, and nobody knocked at my door, so it just evaporated, you know? In any case, there were lots of very good documentary filmmakers, much better than me, who were out of work at the time. I miss it, actually, because it's not as satisfying as writing a novel because if you write a novel it's your own responsibility. If you make a film, you look at it and think 'is that me? Is that the editor? Is that the director? Is that the cameraman?' It's usually the editor - so you can't take the final responsibility for it. But I loved doing it.
How did winning The Booker Prize in 1970 change things for you?
It made the difference between earning a living and not earning a living. I was married, I was being supported as a nice Jewish girl usually is, but it certainly made a difference because eventually I was unmarried and had to be indepdendent. You also get things like paperback rights, foreign and American rights and every book you do after that - good or bad - profits by this label. So yes, it's a good prize to win. It doesn't mean to say you've written the best book - I was on a wonderful shortlist with people like Iris Murdoch and William Trevor - it's down to the taste of the jury at the time. But I'm very glad I won it. I was on the shortlist one year when Iris Murdoch won it, which was nice.
Who are your favourite authors, older and contemporary?
I'll read anything JM Coetzee has written, and anything that Philip Roth is writing now. Philip Roth is on a gravy train, he's on a roll. I've always liked his work but recently he's doing some absolutely wonderful work. And early Saul Bellow - that whole Jewish-American thing is very exciting. Present-day English writers - I mean, we're pygmies in comparison to the American output. Lots of my friends are writers - I read all of Beryl Bainbridge's work, she's good. I like writers who take risks - they may fail, but that's fine, because a good writer's failure is worth reading. Angela Carter was a writer like that, and she was a great loss - you really looked forward to her next book. And I think that's the criteria - do you look forward to the next book by a writer or don't you? And I think there are very few writers you can say that about now.
Do you still play the cello?
Oh yes, I play every day. I play it badly! I used to play with my brothers and sisters until my brother died. It's a different melody now.
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm working on the most difficult thing I've ever done in my life and that's my memoirs. It's difficult - my memory's pretty good, but it's a question of what to omit. You have to be very honest, and in order to be honest you would have to badmouth people. And I believe people are more important than books, so you have to leave stuff out in order not to hurt them. And that's the difficult part of writing a memoir. But it's quite exciting.
Going back to the book's theme of mixed marriage, how important was it to you to marry a Jewish man?
It was a given. There was no notion of doing otherwise. My daughter married out, and that didn't worry me at all. I didn't have a second thought about it - he's American, values her, treats her well. They have two sons - uncircumcised - and she said to me, 'I was a bit worried about what you would think', and I said I was grateful. I think it's a barbaric act, and I was glad she didn't do it because she felt it was barbaric. So although the boys are Jewish in kind and they have the right of return, having a Jewish mum, it didn't worry me a bit. I have another daughter, unmarried, doesn't want to marry - that's fine too.
Do you enjoy being a grandmother?
It's the greatest joy of my life - and I'm a bloody good one too! I think being a very mediocre mother, looking back now - the omissions, the mistakes ,the regrets - I think I learned from all of that and I love being a grandma, and they're lovely boys. So yes, I am a good granny and I think they'll tell you that. One of them is 22, the other's 20 - they were both at Sussex, well one is still at Sussex and the other just got a scholarship to the Guggenheim in Venice. No writers, but my daughter, their mother, is a sculptor and painter, and this boy is just passionate - you smell a passion - and that's wonderful.
What was it like seeing some of your books, especially Madame Sousatzka with Shirley Maclaine, made into films?
Look because I made films I know it's different. A book's a book, a film's a film, and if it's different I don't get offended. I was a bit disappointed with Sousatzka though because they changed it so much, they put it in India - and the whole thing took on an Indian quality which was a long long way from Cardiff, I'll tell you that. When I first wrote it - it's never been out of option - I was asked who should play the role and I said Anna Magnani, who's a superb actress. Well Shirley Maclaine's a long way from her - but she did a good job. I thought it was OK in the end but the other film, I Sent A Letter To My Love with Simone Signoret was a beauty - that really was, not because they stuck to the book, they did, in a way, but it was so sensitive and so confined. It was a beautiful film. I was very happy with that one. Then I had a mini-series of Wakefield's Crusades, that was an interesting one too.
How big a role does Judaism play in your life?
I do Seder every week - no, not every week sorry (laughs). Every year for my grandchildren and family, and I reckon that's about all. While we were married we did the Friday night bit - no more, but I feel more and more Jewish. And also the anxiety about Israel - it's at the back of my mind, it worries me. I fear its demise, the way things are going. I have friends there, and my late husband - my late ex-husband, has family there, but I'm not in touch with them. It's worrying, and most people are worried about it. Unless they're Jews For Jesus or something...
What advice would you give to would-be writers?
I tell you, it's so different now. I don't think I would find a publisher now. They don't read the books, they weight them, and their accountants play a very huge part in it. It helps to be young, it helps to be pretty, which means you can go on telly - it's all PR now. I think the talent is looked upon with minimal concentration, and that's a pity, but the whole thing has changed now. The fact that you have to pay booksellers to put books on the centre table or in the window is disgusting. It's nothing to do with talent, it's nothing to do with writing - since publishing has become a kind of conglomerate the whole business and attitude to writing has changed. As a result too many books are published and many of them are unreadable. They've got the obligatory sex and the obligatory drugs and criminal intent. If you've got all that you stand a good chance of publication. This is no criteria for work. It means any thought of any kind is put aside as something quite boring. Blockbusters do well, sagas do well, and that's all right, because some of them are good. It's toally changed and that's a shame.