For screenwriter and novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, 65, the past few weeks have been exciting. Her 11th novel, Poet and Dancer (Doubleday, $19.95), an elegant tale of offbeat passions, has been published to good reviews, and her screenplay for Howards End has won an Oscar. The third partner in the Merchant-Ivory film-production team, Jhabvala is also the pen behind such gorgeous cinematic pieces as A Room With a View, The Europeans, and, of course, Howards End. Is she pleased by the Oscar? ''Oh, goodness, I have one already for A Room With a View,'' Jhabvala says, shedding for a moment her legendary shyness. A small-boned woman with a quiet voice, Jhabvala was born in Germany, immigrated to Britain as a child, and later married Cyrus Jhabvala, a prominent Indian architect. Sitting in her modest Manhattan apartment, she radiates the composure that characterizes her writing. Jhabvala clearly would have been happier had Howards End won the award for Best Picture instead. ''That would make a lot of difference to future films. At Merchant- Ivory we have difficulty finding money for projects. Shakespeare Wallah, which was 1965, was successful but we didn't make money. A Room With a View was our first big financial success and that was 1985!''
Is there much difference between writing novels and screenplays? ''Oh, yes a novel involves art; a screenplay, craft. You have to get good structure and scenes going, and good dialogue too. Then the actors and the director take over. When you write a novel, you have to tell the whole story yourself.''
Clearly, Jhabvala prefers novels. ''It's the long-term value of books that I love. People always ask me, 'What's your hobby?' I say, 'I write screenplays.'''