December 18, 1992 at 05:00 AM EST

Tulips, lilies, roses, and orchids swamp Michael Caine’s pale blue and gold suite at Manhattan’s St. Regis Hotel, but their delicate scent is overwhelmed by cigar fumes. ”Neil Simon once told me I should be a writer,” Caine says, opening a window for some air. ”’You’re a good storyteller,’ he said, ‘and that’s what writing is.”’ So when Random House signed up Caine’s autobiography, What’s It All About?, the actor, who’s now 59, decided to write the book himself.

”What they wanted was my voice,” he says. ”That struck a chord with me. No ghostwriter could ever know me as well as I know myself.” Besides, he says, ”writing is like acting in some ways. There’s the construction of suspense, the timing of laughter.” So Caine spent the next two years hunched over his word processor, pecking away with two fingers. ”It gave me tennis elbow in both arms, but other than that, my life is much happier having written it. It was a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of psychotherapy. I thought I would learn from here about back there, but what I did was go back and relive things. When you’re writing, you remember a lot of things you’ve blotted out, put on the back burner.” What’s It All About? is his ”attempt to set the record straight about many things”: his East End London boyhood, his stint in the army, his relationship with his second wife, Shakira. But mostly it is about the movies, from Alfie to Educating Rita to Hannah and Her Sisters.

Caine — who enjoys reading James Ellroy, Andrew Vachss, and Thomas Harris — is currently researching his second book, a thriller. ”It’s very much like Tom Clancy, that sort of thing,” he says. ”I’d like to write the screenplay from it and direct it.” But first he’s got to finish the book. ”It’s much more difficult than an autobiography,” he concedes. ”You’ve got to have plot, characters, and all that.”

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