Beyond the Word Made Flesh, AI, and Sci-Fi: Harnessing the Creative Muse in Bay City

Author Roberto Scarlato left his native Chicago for a more affordable and less hectic setting to write and raise a family, but the plot twists keep coming.

    Additional Reporting by
    icon Mar 14, 2024
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Imagine the preamble of a new Twilight Zone episode, delivered straight from the lips of Rod Serling.

In this, the dawning of the age of artificial intelligence, civilization finds itself at the crossroads of giddy fascination and abject fear, captivated by the potential of a technology coaxed into existence and christened with an acronymic nickname, AI. 

AI is our new pet that can do awesome tricks. We marvel at its meticulously elaborate fantasy creations and eerily convincing deep fake videos. We think it’s cute when little AI belches out a sequel to “American Pie” in the style of Tom Petty, or pens a volume of poetry in the style of Emily Dickinson.

Taking a drag from his cigarette, this new casually elegant postmodern Rod Serling arches his eyebrow as the camera closes in and deals out the most twisted irony of all: He is now AI. 

Suddenly, the room starts to rotate as you realize you’re not watching a television program at all. The episode has been a snapshot of your life in a dream. Your chest drops into the pit of your stomach. Panic takes over and you shift into survival mode.

As a youngster, Roberto Scarlato’s inspiration came from his favorite TV programs, Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents “I wasn’t a strong reader,” he says of his pre-adolescent years, adding, “I think I didn’t have the right books.” 

That all changed with he discovered R. L. Stine’s  Goosebumps” series, which opened his eyes to the art of storytelling in a way that connected with him. Scarlato was so inspired that he wrote a letter to his literary idol – and was quite surprised to receive a response. “He wrote me an encouraging letter, saying he always likes to hear from young writers, and told me of some of his next books coming up.”

That spark of recognition ignited a bonfire of interest within the fifth grader. Scarlato’s parents generously fed their son’s growing appetite for books once they saw his passion take root.

As a young adult, Scarlato discovered crime fiction writer Lawrence Block. “One of his books opened up my world. Crime fiction is very direct,” he explains. “Just the facts, get the point across … and I thought, ‘Why is that only in crime fiction?’ ” Scarlato reached out, got a thoughtful response, and further streamlined his storytelling ability.

But the author credits his college Rhetoric 101 instructor, Phil Nedrow, for helping him integrate these concepts into his own work. Scarlato self-published his first story in 1999 and has averaged more than one publication per year since then, with an additional backlog of “around 60 stories in my head that I want to write.”

Notable recent publications include The Christmas Crooner (2023), Skyways of Tomorrow (2019), and Father, Midnight (2023), which he wrote to memorialize his father, who suffered from gastrointestinal issues in his later years. 

“People that you’ve lost are never gone. They’re living inside your head.” In Scarlato’s case, writing is an internal cinematic process. “I try to write in the sense of [producing] a movie. I’ve got all the actors, all the props, settings, permits, and I’m shooting it inside my head.” 

Today, the authors from whom Scarlato draws the greatest influence include Stephen King, Richard Bach, and Donald Westlake. “I try to do what Stephen King does, but in a shorter amount of time,” he says. Pickpocket Frankie (2016) is when Scarlato believes his literary voice hit its stride.

In fact, it has been his voice that has propelled his career in a new direction. “My wife always told me, ‘You have a very mature voice, you should do something with your voice.’ That’s a nice compliment but who can do that?” As it turns out, Scarlato could, and has been for the past 10 years.

The Phantasmagoria, Vol. 1 (2023) is a collaboration fellow audio book narrator and New Orleans author Dana Joseph Wilson, who has a background in opera. “I contacted him to narrate one of my short stories, because sometimes I like to have a different voice reading my work.” Over the next year, the two kept in contact and the collaboration came to fruition. “One of us had the idea to create a collection of our own in the vein of Twilight Zone or Hitchcock Presents.

Scarlato’s wife of 25 years, Aja, is also his high-school sweetheart. They have an 11-year-old daughter, Sophia. The family moved to Bay City in 2016.

“Chicago was expensive with a young daughter,” Scarlato says. When his wife’s mother, who lives in the area, was diagnosed with Parkinsons disease, being closer to family became a priority. “We moved here, did a fresh start, and started to fall in love with Bay City,” he says, adding, “I feel more comfortable here than I ever did in Chicago.”

The difference was stark and immediate. “We were looking for an apartment,” he recalls of their first weeks in town, “and my car was parked near the [Alice and Jack Wirt Public Library]. I saw someone putting something on the windshield of our car, and I thought, ‘Oh, great, a parking ticket.’ ” Rather than a fine, the paper was actually a coupon left on cars with out-of-state license plates. “I thought, this town is great! Instead of a parking ticket, I get a free meal.”

In 2019, Aja Scarlato did some digging through Bay City historical records. “She found my relatives were actually from Bay City. They started here in 1901 [and] they had the Upal surname. My mother’s great-great grandparents started in Bay City, then moved to Chicago.”

In terms of the path to establishing his writing career, Scarlato tried the traditional route of dutifully querying writing agents and agencies, following up, getting barely any response before self-publishing a collection of short stories in 2009. Sales were slow at first, but picked up as he started to publish on Kindle. “Audio narration royalties come in monthly, [and] people love being told a story.” Over the past 10 years, Scarlato has narrated 280 books on Audible. 

While audiobooks may be his bread and butter, Scarlato remains a tactile fellow. “I never go anywhere without a book in my hand,” he says. When it comes to networking and meeting other writers, Scarlato recommends libraries, bookstores, and Facebook groups as a resource, but he counts the artistic community that inhabits Lolobee’s on Linn Street, where we happen to be having our conversation, as a beacon for the local creative community. 

“We discovered Lolobee’s during Covid, and this is exactly what a penny university used to be – you gain knowledge from all walks of life” while socializing. So, is there anyone in particular with whom he’d like to have a chance encounter?

“I’d like to meet the Michigan Chillers guy (Christopher Tod Wright), but we haven’t crossed paths yet.” Wright, who is originally from Grayling, writes under the pseudonyms Johnathan Rand and Christopher Knight and has expanded his popular teen thriller series into American Chillers.

Scarlato is currently working on a novella in which the lead character is black, so he wants to hire a narrator of appropriate heritage. Other projects continue forward as well. 

Scarlato never leaves the house without a book in his hand, that much is true. But as his wellspring of inspiration continues to flow, it’s safe to say he never leaves the house without a book (or two) in his head. 

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