Somtow Sucharitkul, chubby in a sleeveless muscle shirt, sometimes laughs when he talks about himself, as if laughter could explain why the same person who plays with plastic dragons in the "toy room" of his Alexandria apartment has also written and published 10 books in the last seven years -- two of them this summer.
But then nothing about Sucharitkul follows logically.
The 33-year-old author, who won the John Campbell award for best new science fiction author in 1981 and received Hugo nominations for two short stories, began his career as a musical composer.
He was educated classically at elite English schools, but relishes schlocky horror films (favorites are "Night of the Living Dead" and "Basket Case"). He is accomplished at writing symphonies; and he recently finished a novelette about lizard ninjas who invade Washington. Born in Thailand, he writes in English -- a science fiction novel ("The Darkling Wind") and a horror paperback ("Vampire Junction," under the pen name S.P. Somtow) are the most recent. First published as a boy (when he was apparently mistaken for a sage by a famous American actress, but more of that later), he now yearns to write for Hollywood.
"My whole life has been a steady progression downward from the most esoteric of art forms into popular culture," he says, giggling as he sits barefoot in his apartment. (He asks visitors to take off their shoes at the door, as is the Thai custom.)
"I began as an avant-garde composer with an extremely limited audience, then found a wider but still limited audience in science fiction, I've written for a more mass market with 'Vampire Junction,' and film would be the next step down.
"It's the arena where you ought to say what really matters," he says, suddenly serious.
Sucharitkul is serious when he says he hates doing what's expected of him but also wants to be accepted. Conflicting desires have jerked his career from one field to another; he struggles intensely to excel, but when he achieves his goals, he gets restless and moves on.
Perhaps because of this urge to try new things, Sucharitkul's career is characterized by ambitious projects. As a precocious 11-year-old, he wrote and directed "Electra" for a school production, in which he took the part of Orestes. At 15, he wrote an opera setting Henrik Ibsen's "Brand" to music. "The Darkling Wind" is the fourth volume in a series that took him six years to write, and that he intended as one big book.
"I love that kind of book. Planets, all these planets at war with each other. And you have to, of course, build each planet from scratch and create all the culture. And then you have to create their languages and their art forms and so on. And of course you have the incredible political intrigue," he says, grinning hugely and waving his arms to convey the scope of it all.
Born in Bangkok, Sucharitkul bounced from England to Boston to France to Holland and then back to Thailand by the time he was 7. His family moved often because of his father's work in the Thai foreign service. His father is now Thai ambassador to Italy.
"When I was a child I didn't have much time to be one. I was always wearing three-piece suits. I was terribly involved in intellectual pursuits, and I never played anything."
As a result of his travels, Sucharitkul, whose first language is English, speaks Thai, German, Italian, French and Dutch. He has studied, among others, Latin, Greek, and Lakota, an American Indian language he used in an early novel, "The Aquiliad," in which the ancient Romans come to America by steamship and fight the Indians.
He created an "Inquestral High Speech" to use in his science fiction series, complete with several dialects and detailed linguistic rules. (Sample: Rakta eyah, yvervauzen ershtrushtut, ahte ke chiatrilan dhendaorah ekshenjut. Translation: It is proper that the grand view be established before the little drama of us mortals is played out.)
"I made it a European language, which is the kind of language that would have branched off between Hittite and Greek, let's say. Anyway, I knew it was working because when the first book came out, I got a letter from a Greek PhD student who was figuring it out," he says, chuckling at the idea.
He shrugs off his productivity. "I think that most of my friends think I'm very conscientious and I feel I'm very lazy," he says.
"He doesn't seem to think he works hard, but he does," says Tim Sullivan, a science fiction writer who was Sucharitkul's housemate in 1982 and 1983. "He sometimes works simultaneously on a number of projects, so that if he gets bored with one he can work on another one. If he can convince himself that it's fun, it's better for him."
When Sucharitkul was at Eton and Cambridge, he did little writing, putting his energy into music. He spent college holidays in Washington teaching composition to a friend of his father's, J. William Middendorf II, now U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States. The lessons helped support him when he moved to the United States in 1976, and he still gives them periodically. He says he started writing science fiction in 1977 because he was having trouble composing. "I was blocked on my music."
After he sold his first story to a magazine, he stopped writing fiction and returned to Thailand to help run the "Asian Composers Expo '78," a show that opened with Sucharitkul's "Gongula 3," a 40-minute composition for five chamber groups playing simultaneously. The piece was considered "sacrilegious" by some Thais because it used both western and Thai instruments.
"In Thailand I was very controversial. During rehearsals I was brutally attacked and beaten by a taxi driver who said that I was ruining the moral fiber of the country. In America you simply cannot be that controversial."
A few months after the expo, Sucharitkul, then 26, left Thailand to escape the controversy. "I couldn't stand the pressure of so many people having these reactions to what I was doing."
But he also misses an audience that reacts so strongly. "I've changed since leaving Thailand. I've become much more mellow. No one is angry at me for what I write . . . I'm despairing of ever having anyone angry at me again," he says, smiling.
He is currently writing three books -- a novel about child abuse, a historical fantasy about the aftermath of the Trojan War and more science fiction.
The abrupt shifts in the style and content of his work make his books hard to sell. According to Bantam Spectra senior editor Lou Aronica, "It's hard as far as developing an audience. Readers don't know what to expect from him."
But Sucharitkul says he can't do it any other way. "The unconscious wants to tell a story, but it only wants to tell it once. If you tell it out loud, that's it. You can't tell it on the page. If I try to repeat a book that I've done before, I get the feeling of terrible intellectual bankruptcy."
He wrote his vampire novel after winning science fiction awards -- because it would be more controversial, he says. "I thought people would be angry because of the excessive sex and violence."
To the author's disappointment, "Vampire Junction" has not sparked any noticeable controversy.
He plans to try screen writing next. It's a fitting future, since he first appeared in print with the help of actress Shirley MacLaine. She clipped one of his poems from the Bangkok Post in 1967 and published it as a preface to her 1970 autobiography, "Don't Fall Off the Mountain."
Hail O Wind! Salutations!
From a night wanderer seeking light
*searching a mystic land
*from which I have come:
O wind, I am not human:
I am a stranger
*from a different planet:
Is it the same planet from which
*you, O wind, have come? . . .
Sucharitkul's reaction to her use of the poem, which he wrote when he was 11, is characteristically contradictory. "I was deeply flattered and at the same time I was mad, because it's not very good. It reads like a translation.
"When I contacted them MacLaine's publishers years later, they were very surprised to learn that it wasn't by an ancient sage. I got a check for $200 for the poem. That's still the most per word I've ever been paid."