Monday, September 23, 2013

Dispatch #12: Author Corina Vacco
In Conversation

Author Corina Vacco
by Lupe Fernandez

Last month, I attended an SCBWI event in Sonoma County at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts called "Young Adult Lit & Environment Contamination" and met young adult author, Corina Vacco.

Corina introduced the assembled group to Jason, Charlie and Cornpup, three boys living the polluted town of Poxton. My Chemical Mountain is not a futuristic dystopian novel. It's a story of today. It's a story of friendship and family, urban mythology and corporate corruption.

Her beautifully written novel was the winner of the 30th Annual Delacorte Prize for a First Adult Novel.

Mother and Daughter
What kind of influence were your parents on your work and the stories you want to tell?
I grew up in a small, clean suburban town outside for Chicago. As a child, I had no idea that pollution was (or could ever be) catastrophic. In fact, environmental issues felt very far away, almost irrelevant. In contrast, my mom, an environmental activist, dragged me all over the Northern Illinois to various protests and events. I spent many childhood moments toting picket signs alongside my mother, who carried a megaphone. As a young writer/daydreamer, I was already a bit socially awkward. Add protests and an activist mother to the mix, and I was, frankly, mortified. There were people who thought my mom was weird, and I was afraid they would think I was weird too. I remember we had a craft fair at my elementary school, where different parents got to go to each classroom and teach kids how to make a craft of their choosing. All the other moms demonstrated how to create Christmas ornaments or folded napkin birds or construction paper snowflakes. My mom did a Save the Whales presentation. I was so embarrassed - Saving the Whales wasn’t a craft! - and there were certainly kids who teased me about it, but there were also kids who pledged to save the whales that day, so that was nice. Many years later, when the Coast Guard stationed my husband and me in Western New York, near one of the most dangerous landfills in the United States, I finally understood my mother’s passion. Voicing outrage and fighting for change was never weird. It’s been beautiful and important. Fast forward to today, and my mom is my ultimate hero. We’re very close, and I’m grateful and proud that she raised me to be aware of social justice issues and to care for our planet.

Poxton's - a play on the word "pox"? - polluted landscape inspires Jason to create a mythology of Uranium Monsters, Grunting Aliens, Dragon Skeletons and other fearsome creatures. Were there monsters or myths created by Jason that didn't make it into the novel?
None that didn’t make it into the novel, but here’s something that’s kind of interesting: to dream up the landfill mythology, I used to step away from my computer in the middle of a scene and lie down for a nap. Right in the moment when I was about to fall asleep, the landfill monsters would appear in my mind, and I’d force myself to wake up before actually falling asleep so I could run to my computer and write it all down. Tapping into that weird “other” consciousness was an unusual experience. Come to think of it, writing the first outline of MY CHEMICAL MOUNTAIN while parked in my car at the foot of a radioactive landfill was also surreal. I guess I am a proponent for doing weird things to jog your creativity!

Corina received this art from a reader
The events in the story take place in the summer before the boys go to high school. Did you have to condense certain scenes for pacing? 
Yes! Originally, I wrote the story in third-person omniscient and divided the narrative into four parts: Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. The book is set in Western New York, a region that left quite an impact on me, both for its beauty and its pollution. At the time, I felt like I had to show Buffalo in the wintertime, because in some ways, wintertime is Buffalo, plus I had included a really cool scene of the boys racing down a snow-covered landfill on their snowmobiles and I was unwilling to leave those pages on the cutting room floor. I also wanted the bonfire scenes to take place in the fall. And there were some soggy, polluted, muddy scenes that seemed to work best in the rainy springtime. I didn’t want to part with any of that. But in reality, the majority of the story took place in the summertime, so even I had to admit, breaking the book into seasons did slow the narrative down. I ended up following the advice of a very insightful agent and condensed the entire book into one summer. At the same time, I changed the point of view to first person, which allowed me to reside deep inside my protagonist’s head. It was a lot of work, but I’m glad I made the changes. I was able to alter and keep many of the scenes—the boys still race down the landfill, but on dirt bikes instead of snowmobiles. I think the pacing struck a chord with my readers, and the immediacy of the condensed time period added a lot of tension and stakes at the end of book.

What has been the most helpful to you in improving your craft?
Time. Lots and lots of time. Three years to be exact. In that time, I learned to love the revision process, because with every rewrite, I could see the book getting better and better, and I could feel myself growing as a writer. In-between rewrites, I’d set the manuscript aside and not look at it for weeks so I could return to the pages with fresh eyes and a more ruthless pair of scissors. It’s funny now, looking back, I remember how eager I was to get my very first draft published. I sent it off knowing it probably needed some work, but also knowing I had a great idea on my hands and the execution was decent. Present-day me is so glad that that particular wish didn’t come true. If the first, second, or even third drafts had been published, I never would have known or fallen in love with the later draft that ultimately was published. And I never would’ve had all those years and all that practice to get to know myself as a writer and to grow and improve my craft. So more than anything else, I always urge my writer friends to be patient with themselves and to give themselves and their work the gift of time—to create, to mull things over, to say goodbye to the scenes that aren’t working, and to think up layers and ideas that will enrich the work. Time is essential to the writer.

Your biography states your husband is in the Coast Guard. How exciting. What are his duties?
My husband is a LT in the Coast Guard and his duties have varied over the years, but his main responsibilities are ensuring that domestic and international commercial vessels and facilities that do business in the United States comply with federal environmental, safety, and security regulations/requirements. In addition, when called upon, he responds to natural and environmental disasters. He provided support during 9/11 and the Haiti earthquake, and was deployed for about 3 months during Hurricane Katrina and Deepwater Horizon (the large Gulf oil spill).

Currently he is in his staff tour where he is a Coast Guard Civil Rights Service Provider. His duties include handling complaints for individuals who believe they have been discriminated against, provide required civil rights awareness training to CG employees, conduct mediations, focus groups, and analysis on required annual climate surveys to all CG units within CA, AZ, NV, and UT—about 6000 military and civilian personnel. He most recently received the 2013 Coast Guard Civil Rights Service Provider of the Year.

As parent, how to you balance your awareness of environmental issues with the day-to-day life of your child? Do you worry what's in the puddles he splashes in?
Oh, it’s hard, especially the more involved I get with environmental movers and shakers, and the more inside information I receive about what’s really in our soil and rainfall and food, toys and personal care items and even mattresses. I do worry about the puddles my child splashes in, particularly after learning that our government’s reaction to the Fukishima disaster was to raise the “acceptable level” of radiation exposure for all of us—I don’t find that very reassuring. At the end of the day, I try to cope with things as positively as I can, by controlling the things I can control. Namely in paying attention to what we eat, boycotting companies that do damage, and supporting groups who are fighting to make this world a cleaner place for our children. My experience fighting the toxic Western New York landfill that inspired MY CHEMICAL MOUNTAIN taught me that everything we do, even if it feels small, makes a difference.

I'd like to thank Corina for granting this interview. Rush to you nearest bookstore, purchase and read My Chemical Mountain.

For more about Corina visit her at


  1. Great interview. So awesome that you met Corina. Loved her book and it's sadly so timely with the environmental issues we face.

  2. Loved the interview Lupe and Corina! You make a valuable point that we all should appreciate the irreplaceable gift of time that we are given. I will try to be more mindful of that from now on. I'm going over to Amazon now to get My Chemical Mountain. Thanks to you both.

    1. Help reduce CO2 emissions. Exhale less often.
      Nitro Knight

  3. Thanks for the great review, Lupe. I wish Corina much success. I sign as many petitions that come my way to improve our conditions locally and abroad. But there are too many problems that need addressing. I support and admire people who are passionate about many causes, and try to make a positive difference.

    1. Thanks for reading the interview Penelope. I'm sure Corina appreciates the support.

  4. As a parent, I feel just like Corina and I too read labels, boycott companies that aren't being mindful of our planet. I teach my kids about the mistakes made today and how they affect the next generation and how they are inheriting someone's else's mess but it's their job to fix it- both my own kids and my student "kids"- I am a teacher too. Corina, thank you for your interview on Pen and Ink. Hilde

    1. Dear Anonymous,
      I remember going to the city dump as a kid. I thought it was cool with the giant mound of debris surrounded by seagulls. Phew.
      Turk Island


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