• Joseph F. Berenato

Michael James Rizzotte releases new work


Local writer Michael James Rizzotte has a new book out. (Courtesy Photo)

Local writer Michael James Rizzotte has just released his latest work, Stories from the Strange Place: A Collection of Short Fiction.


According to the description, in the small town of Cedarwood, “strange occurrences have disrupted the simple lives of a handful of its residents. Supernatural entities have found a way to cross paths with the regular townspeople, causing an existential struggle to ensue. At the center of it are the age-old human conflicts we all must endure. Take a journey with ordinary people who are destined to encounter the extraordinary. The only way for them to find themselves is by confronting the unexplained.”


“This is a collection of the four stories I’ve written these past five years or so, which includes a second edition of the first story I wrote—’Jersey Jabberwock’—and also the fifth story, which hasn’t been published yet; it’s an unreleased story,” Rizzotte told The Gazette.


The stories included in the collection are “Jersey Jabberwock,” “Mister Leeds,” “A Bad Moon,” “A Night of Noise and Wonder” and “Little Lights.”


Rizzotte, a 2000 graduate of Hammonton High School, said that the aforementioned “Jersey Jabberwock” began as what “people started calling ‘the Twitter novel.’”


“I started that one on New Year’s Day, 2016. It was this idea that I had, because nowadays I waste time on my phone. I had this idea to tell a story, one tweet a day, for the entirety of 2016 ... I did that and saw that through for 365 tweets, which became a story. Somewhere halfway through there, people started to take interest, and that’s when I said, ‘oh, if 15 or 20 people are interested in this story, I can use the Twitter novel as an outline for what became the novella of ‘Jersey Jabberwock,’” Rizzotte said.


Rizzotte said that around the time “A Bad Moon” was completed, he began to flirt with the idea of collecting his works into one volume.


“I had the fourth one, the brass bones, in my mind already, and originally it was just going to be those four. But, around this time last year, because of the pandemic, and everyone being isolated from each other and cut off from the rest of the world, I started to come up with a different take on the standard alien invasion story. That was the seed for that. I knew ‘pandemic-inspired alien invasion story’ was floating around my mind for two months; I didn’t know where I was going to go with it,” Rizzotte said.


For the new story, Rizzotte tried something new.


“It dawned on me to tell it through different points of view, sort of like Game of Thrones, where you follow one person and then the next chapter you follow a different person. I wanted to take three main characters, all from different walks of life, and have them tell their story of how they’re dealing with said invasion. That became ‘Little Lights,’ which is the name of the fifth one ... The first four were told first-person from main characters that were sort of like myself, but this one was told from different points of view, so it’s a little more ambitious of a story,” Rizzotte said.


Rizzotte said that the title of his latest work derives part of its name—the “strange place”—from where “I lived in my mind when I was a kid—and still do.”


The book, Stories from the Strange Place, features cover art by local artist Don Swenson. (Courtesy Photo)

“It’s sort of my escape. My earliest writing was comic books at family gatherings. I would take this little desk at my grandparents’ house, and would slide it behind this wall under the stairs, and I would sit there while everybody was over, and I would draw and write comics. At the time, the drawing was more my thing, but I don’t think I realized that the writing I was just as much—if not more—interested in,” Rizzotte said.


Rizzotte told The Gazette that he grew up in a farming family, but, early on, his father—the late David Rizzotte—realized that “I was going to be more of the artist/writer type.”


“He gave me the freedom to chase whatever interest or hobby that I was interested in. He was awesome,” Rizzotte said.


Rizzotte credits his father as the inspiration behind many of his works and interests.


“He told the story of the Jersey Devil for years and years and years, and it was the thing that he and I shared. He was so well known, and so well loved, and such a larger-than-life figure in Hammonton, so for me and him to have that bond of the Jersey Devil—which then branched out into cheesy science-fiction movies and stuff that mostly everyone that knew him didn’t know he was into—he shared with me,” Rizzotte said.


Rizzotte said that his father’s unexpected death in 2012 served as direct inspiration for “Jersey Jabberwock.”


“It’s mainly about a guy dealing with the loss of his father. It’s unfortunate that I had to lose him, the guy who introduced me to the legend and was in my corner the whole time, to give me the angle that I needed to finally say, OK, this is the story I want to tell because I want people to know about him and my relationship with him. I don’t do that in a straightforward way, but there’s definitely loads of that in the story,” Rizzotte said.


In 2016, Rizzotte suffered another loss.


“About halfway through the Twitter novel, I unexpectedly lost Dave, my older brother. While I was trying to process the loss of my father through writing the Twitter novel, that came out of left field. I was going to quit the Twitter novel, but I think, real late that night after I lost Dave, I was talking with my wife, and I decided that my father and Dave would want me to see this thing through. They would want me to finish that. That’s what propelled me to finish the Twitter novel, wake up the next day following Dave’s death and continue the Twitter novel, which was very tough,” he said.


Rizzotte was also able to call upon his relationship with his brother in his writing.


“My fourth story, ‘The Incredible Night of Noise and Wonder,’ is about brothers that were estranged, and that was loosely based on our relationship. It’s a brothers story. It’s also science fiction; all my stories have science-fiction elements, because that’s just the kind of storyteller I am. I was able to process his passing and have a little bit of closure. I try to write through pain,” Rizzotte said.


Rizzotte credits much of his family for his continued writing success, including his wife Jamie—”She keeps all this insanity together,” he said—and his two children, Lucas, 3, and Nina, 8—whose own stories, Rizzotte said, often spur his imagination.


“She comes up with her own characters and tells me these stories, and I’m thinking this is unbelievable stuff. She’s 8 years old and she’s inspiring me. In the author notes in this book, I thank her for her stories because she’s so inspiring,” Rizzotte said.


Rizzotte previously called upon his daughter to help with the cover to his second work, “Mister Leeds.”


“The little girl in that draws a picture, so I had her draw the picture that the little girl draws in the story for the cover, and she did an amazing job,” Rizzotte said.


For Stories from the Strange Place, though, Rizzotte commissioned local artist Don Swenson.


“I love his work; I’ve loved his work for years, and I’ve always wanted him to do something for me. I reached out to him, and he nailed it with the silhouette of the father and son,” Rizzotte said.


The image of a father and son, and the recurring theme of familial relationships, holds particularly special meaning for Rizzotte, both as a son and as a father.


“I love my kids, and they’re the ones who inspire me nowadays to keep on telling my stories. Eventually, they’ll read them—not now, because there are some cuss words in them—but I’m just trying to leave something for them, so one day they can say, ‘Oh, these are my daddy’s stories’ and be proud of them. I don’t build tree houses or anything, but I do think I tell a story pretty good, and I hope these stories live on after I’m gone—just like my father’s stories that he told me,” Rizzotte said.


Stories from the Strange Place is now available on Amazon.com.