The emigre has two muses

Screenwriter and novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has a book and a new film out in the same week. She talks to Gerald Jacobs discusses childhood, Merchant Ivory with Booker Prize and Oscar winner ?????about Merchant Ivory, bogus mystics
"I tell nothing but lies," says Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. This is not quite the candid admission it sounds. It signifies her reluctance to give away anything, in print, of her personal history. This unique recipient of a Booker prize, one British and two Hollywood Academy Awards is quintessentially, she insists, a purveyor of fiction. "I don't think I'll ever write non-fiction. As soon as I begin, I automatically go into character."

She is contrasting her style of writing with that of the more autobiographically inclined Kaylie Jones, author of A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, which Jhabvala adapted for the screen and which will open on 9 October in London with Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Hershey in the leading roles. It is Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's 16th professional collaboration with her neighbours in the same Manhattan building for the past 23 years, producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory.

A Soldier's Daughter will not be the only launch that week for Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. John Murray will be publishing her new collection of short stories - her first for over 20 years - East into Upper East. Sub- titled "Plain Tales from New York and New Delhi", these reflect their author's divided life - she has had homes in both cities for many years.

The sole exception to this twin-town theme is the last story, "Two Muses", inspired by Jhabvala's memories of living among the German-Jewish emigre community of North-West London between 1939 and 1951. She was born in Germany in 1927 and grew up in Cologne, where her Polish-born father had moved during the First World war and where her maternal grandfather was a cantor in the synagogue.

The "Two Muses" of her story are the wife and mistress of Max, a German novelist who subsequently becomes a success in this country. The three main characters, as seen through the eyes of Max's granddaughter, forge a mutually dependent relationship, the closeness and vulnerability of which derives from the shared experience of persecution and uprootedness. Max had his books burned and "whatever upheaval there may have been in their inner lives became vastly overwhelmed by what was happening in the street, the cities, the countries around them".

Jhabvala herself remembers her childhood as a powerful dichotomy - the first of many - "My earliest memories are of a very comfortable German, middle-class, Jewish life at home while, out in the street, we were being called names and having stones thrown at us by other German children. We were forced into Jewish schools. There were just two cafes where we were allowed to go.

"I was six when Hitler came to power. Most of the family left Germany - for Holland, France, Palestine and, in our case, for England. Those who went to Holland were all caught. Much of the family perished. My mother's parents and my paternal grandfather died before the war. My father's mother died in Auschwitz. I don't feel that any of this is a subject to which I will turn in my writing. For me, life really started in England."

Unlike her brother, who became Professor of German at Oxford, she dropped German and Germany from her consciousness. "He was 14 when we came to England and already deeply involved in German writings. I was 12 and still reading children's books. English is my first language. I think and dream in English." She also dropped her childhood. "When I read other writers saying their roots are in their childhood, I don't feel that. I don't know that a writer should have an identity. I feel scattered among hundreds of characters. I have no core, no roots." Perhaps unsurprisingly, she holds dual American and British citizenship.

In London, the young Ruth Prawer met Indian architect Cyrus Jhabvala, married him and moved with him to Delhi in 1951. She eventually gave up the idea of living there permanently in 1975. "I left because I felt too isolated. It was taking a physical toll. I wanted to go back to what I'd been born into - or at least been brought up into. India is such a difficult place for a Westerner. Nowadays, I spend three months of every year in Delhi. I do so much reading when I'm there. I have a whole library of books. In India, I constantly re-read classic writers: Proust, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Tolstoy. In New York, I read what I have to read - research material for the films."

Her Indian library also includes the Upanishads, as well as Moslem and Christian mystical works. She reveals this in response to a question about the frequency of apparently bogus Indian mystics and gurus in her writing. In her new collection, the character of "Ma" in "The Temptress," irresistibly recalls the vivid presence of Maji, the mystical woman, in Jhabvala's 1975 Booker-prize-winning novel, Heat and Dust. Jhabvala confesses to a fascination with people of this kind who, however unconvincing and ridiculous they may seem to the rational sceptic, exert a magnetic influence over so many others. "Yes, they are apparently bogus and yet one always feels, could it be that they have the secret? My guru stories and my reading are part of a yearning to discover that there is more than the finite time and space we perceive."

But it is a yearning that is never allowed to run out of control. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is among the most balanced and wise of novelists. While her material may be made up of political events or ideological issues, it is never weighed down by the dead hand of authorial certainty. Whether her characters are concerned with the global implications of Indian independence or the domestic ones of alcoholism or failed marriages, they are portrayed with a sympathetic acknowledgement of human weakness and aspiration. This is a writer who, you feel, is never trying to manipulate you. As she puts it herself, "I find it impossible to take sides."

Scrupulous in avoiding the reproduction of recognisable, "real-life" individuals in her fiction, Jhabvala builds her plots around often-recurring types, or "amalgams" as she calls them. East into Upper East offers several examples of her characteristically close relationships between two contrasted but connected women. These are often mothers and daughters. This is a subject upon which Jhabvala can speak with authority and breadth. Her eldest daughter Fienana, 45, is a trade union organiser in India. The second, Ava, 43, is an architect who lives near Colchester. The youngest, Firoza, 41, is a teacher in Los Angeles.

With six grandchildren, too, Jhabvala's notorious disaffection with travelling - "I dislike it more and more; the packing, the moving, the jet-lag" - is frequently put to the test. Her film work hardly enables her to lead a hermit's life, either, although she does steer clear of the actual shooting. "I usually go on the set once during filming. Sometimes, I never even meet the actors."

Kaylie Jones is the daughter of James Jones, the man who wrote From Here to Eternity. Though A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, is a novel - her first - Jones based it fairly closely upon her own life as the daughter of an American writer growing up in France in the 1970s. James Jones returned to the United States - to Long Island - to die, when he learned that he had heart trouble, a poignant homecoming faithfully recorded both in his daughter's fictionalised memoir and in the film.

James Ivory, who had lived for several years in France, read the book and felt an affinity with the characters. He began adapting it himself before, almost inevitably, turning over the job to his skilled and trusted colleague who had written the screenplays drawn from, among others, E M Forster's Howards End and A Room With A View, Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day and Heat and Dust. With such a close team, the Merchant- Ivory-Jhabvala projects tend to evolve organically, though it is the London University Eng Lit graduate Jhabvala who usually chooses the classics - the Forsters and the Henry Jameses - for Ivory to make the final decision.

Like New York and New Delhi - between which "there is no comparison; they are completely different" - novels and screenplays represent another of those Jhabvala dichotomies. "A screenplay is much simpler to do at first," she says, "but then it becomes more complicated. You allow for revisions, whereas once a novel is done, that's it, it's finished."

And of course you control everything. In a film, by contrast, you share your characters and scenes with an army of directors, actors, cameramen, costume and set designers and so on. "At first," says Jhabvala, "I used to say, "who are these people to tamper with my characters?" Now, particularly since I always work with the same people, I don't have these frustrations."

The movie ideas don't always come from her or James Ivory's bookshelves. Her favourite among all her Merchant-Ivory films, Mr and Mrs Bridge, completed in 1990 and based on two novels by the American writer Evan Connell, Mr Bridge and Mrs Bridge, came courtesy of the actress Joanne Woodward, who had bought the rights and who eventually starred in the film with Paul Newman. The Remains of the Day had already been set up for Columbia. Mike Nicholls was booked to direct it and Harold Pinter had written a screenplay.

"Then it was offered to us," recalls Jhabvala. "We said we wanted to do our own screenplay. Mike Nicholls stayed on as a producer and Pinter was offered a screen credit for the screenplay, which was no longer his, of course. He understandably declined. I didn't read Harold Pinter's screenplay and I never met him."

Her next project is an adaptation of Henry James's The Golden Bowl, the screenplay for which she has just completed. This, she says, is "my favourite James - we wanted to do The Portrait of a Lady but were beaten to it. Now we have to find the money. It can take a long time. Howards End and A Room with a View both took four years."

In the meantime, October is clearly Ruth Prawer Jhabvala month. Following the book and the film will come the final accolade when, in about four weeks time, she flies in to do Desert Island Discs. "I will choose some of our film music," she says, "some Indian vocal music, Bach, Vivaldi, Scarlatti and Mozart." Whether or not the prospect of being marooned on a desert island cures her of her aversion to travel, she is at least used to the heat.

8 'East into Upper East' is published by John Murray on 8 October at pounds 15.99