Corina Vacco is a young adult author who lives in Berkeley, California. This week marks the publication of her debut novel, My Chemical Mountain. Her novel won the Delacorte Prize for a first young adult novel and is an official YA selection at the Wordstock Literary Festival in Portland, Oregon.
The story behind My Chemical Mountain is an interesting one. While living in western New York, Corina came across a real-life toxic town situated near one of the most dangerous landfills in the world. It contained chemical waste from Love Canal and other environmental disasters, along with radioactive waste leftover from the Manhattan Project. It was known that these contaminants had leached into nearby groundwater and soil. People who lived nearby had received letters ordering them to stop eating vegetables from their gardens.
She attended a town meeting where people confronted the government, demanding that the landfill be cleaned up. She met a teacher who worked at an elementary school adjacent to one of the landfills. She interviewed people who, not realizing the danger, grew up swimming in creek water that changed colors from dyes dumped by a nearby factory. Sadly, government officials declared the area “safe” and no remediation was done.
Shortly thereafter, Corina’s main character’s voice appeared in her mind while she was walking her dog through the city. She’d heard about this happening to other writers, so she knew just what to do—ask him questions: What is it like living near a landfill? Are you angry about what happened to your father? Why do you swim in the creek when you know it’s contaminated?
Here is the description of My Chemical Mountain from the publisher:
“Rocked by his father’s recent death and his mother’s sudden compulsion to overeat, Jason lashes out by breaking into the abandoned mills and factories that plague his run-down town. Always by his side are his two best friends, Charlie, a fearless thrill junkie, and Cornpup, a geek inventor whose back is covered with cysts. The boys rage against the noxious pollution that suffocates their town and despise those responsible for it; at the same time, they embrace the danger of their industrial wasteland and boast about living on the edge. Then one night the boys vandalize one of the mills. Jason makes a costly mistake—and unwittingly becomes a catalyst for change. In a town like his, change should be a good thing. There’s one problem: change is what Jason fears most of all.”
My original workspace was extremely raw. When I wrote My Chemical Mountain, I was living twenty miles away from a cluster of dangerous landfills contaminated with uranium from the Manhattan Project, and chemical waste from the Love Canal disaster. These landfills, strange as it sounds, were adjacent to a residential neighborhood and easily accessible. I used to drive out to the area so I could take photographs and immerse myself in the overall vibe. The air would smell like tar and sulfur. Birds and deer avoided certain patches of snow. And from outside the tattered chain-link fence, I always spotted some evidence of trespassing—beer cans littered about, graffiti on the windows of the abandoned factories, footprints and a baseball glove left behind at the edge of the industrial yards. Over the course of several weeks, I visited the landfills often, and wrote a very rough draft in the front seat of my car, shivering even though the heat was blasting. There was something so creepy about the whole scene. I could actually feel my characters’ high-risk behavior, how they would ride their dirt bikes at the landfills, how they would swim in a contaminated creek, how they were angry and afraid.
Today, my workspace is actually quite lovely. I write underneath a chandelier from Spain and a Djeco bird mobile in a room surrounded by books. The view from my window is of a magnificent flowering tree. It’s interesting to note that my work-in-progress is lighter than my debut novel. I’m sure it’s a reflection of my surroundings.
The view out my window.
DESCRIBE YOUR TYPICAL WORKDAY.
I spend each day with my beautiful little boy. We read piles of books, pick wildflowers, hike wild California trails, eat watermelon on the beach, and collect really cool rocks and bottle caps. I live in the moment with him. When he’s immersed in play, I can sometimes sit beside him and do a bit of work inside my head—resolving plot issues, thinking about dialogue, and conjuring up ideas for specific scenes, etc. Later, when he’s in bed, I open my laptop and sit down to write. This schedule works for me, because I feel most creative at night.
LIST THREE OF YOUR MOST FAVORITE THINGS IN YOUR WORKSPACE AND WHY THEY ARE MEANINGFUL.
1) For obvious reasons, the most important thing is this cute little person who lives with me and deposits crumbs and acorns and matchbox cars all over my workspace—I love that.
Cute little person who lives in my house.
2) Also important, are my fortune telling cards. I don’t really know how to use them properly, but sometimes, when I’m torn about where a character is headed, I pose a question and see what the cards turn up. Then I write what I was probably going to write anyway. But the cards are a nice way to procrastinate, better than sculpting tiny animals out of paperclips.
Fortune telling cards–they’ve never been right about anything.
3) My very first novel “ritten” and illustrated when I was just 7 years old. The spelling and plot are atrocious, but the book itself is very special, a reminder that I have always been, and always will be, a writer.
Cover art for my first novel. Yikes.
My character is really in bad shape here.
I’ve always been a little dark, I suppose.
DO YOU HAVE ANY RITUALS IN YOUR WORK HABITS? IF SO, DESCRIBE THEM.
Not really, unless you count sitting down to write at the same time every night.
WHAT DO YOU LISTEN TO WHILE YOU WORK?
Silence, whenever possible.
WHAT IS YOUR DRINK AND/OR SNACK OF CHOICE WHILE YOU’RE WORKING?
When I’m enjoying the writing process, I eat lots of fresh veggies and hummus. But when I’m feeling frustrated with the plot, or a deadline is looming, I need the comfort of potatoes or the luxuriousness of a gourmet chocolate cupcake to make me feel better about things.
WHAT KEEPS YOU FOCUSED WHILE YOU’RE WORKING?
Now that I’m a mother, finding time to write is a luxury, so I’m more motivated than ever to make good use of the time. Deadlines, whether they be real or self-imposed, also have a way of revving up my writing fever. I also get very focused toward the end of my books, when I have resolved everything in my head and it’s just a matter of getting the words on paper. In any case, if I dare allow myself to wander onto the internet, I have to be really careful, because once I look up a medical symptom or start researching flame retardants in mattresses, it’s all over from there. I find it really difficult, if not impossible, to alternate between feelings of creativity and anxiety.
DO YOU WRITE LONGHAND, ON A COMPUTER, OR ANOTHER WAY?
I scribble rough drafts and ideas in longhand, but these notes almost always end up being exercises to prepare for the real deal. I write more clearly, more freely, and more beautifully when I can see the juxtaposition of my words and sentences in type. Also, I don’t know what I’d do without copy and paste.
HOW DO YOU DEVELOP YOUR STORY IDEAS? DO YOU USE AN OUTLINE, LET THE MUSE LEAD YOU, OR ANOTHER TECHNIQUE?
For My Chemical Mountain in particular, I found the setting before I found my characters and my story. I’d been reading about pollution, and later met people who grew up near contaminated landfills. I got involved in a local fight to clean up serious messes left behind by industry. And I spent a lot of time in a real-life toxic town. These experiences really impacted me. Jason’s character appeared in my mind, seemingly out of nowhere, when I was walking my dog in Buffalo’s Elmwood Art District. I asked him the questions: What do you think of your toxic town? Do you love it? Hate it? Fear it? Do you want to stay or move away? Or do you feel a complex combination of all of these things? Then I listened as he told me his story.
A landfill contaminated with uranium.
IF YOU WERE FORCED TO SHARE YOUR WORKSPACE BUT COULD SHARE IT WITH ANYONE OF YOUR CHOOSING, WHO WOULD IT BE?
A group of weird little artist elves who repaint my workspace walls with strange murals every night while I’m sleeping. I’d allow sculptor elves to hang mobiles too, especially if they worked with jagged pieces of metal, shards of colored glass, and origami birds.
WHAT IS THE BEST PIECE OF WRITING ADVICE YOU’VE HEARD OR RECEIVED?
Back when I was a true amateur and ready to mail my roughest rough draft to every publisher on the planet, someone told me to join The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It was such great advice, because SCBWI has been an invaluable source of camaraderie, inspiration, professional growth, laughter, opportunities, and guidance through my publication journey.