Every so often, a new author comes along that demands a reader's attention. Corina Vacco, a first time novelist living in Berkeley, California, has accomplished such a feat. Inspired by real life events, she has set her debut novel in an extremely polluted western New York surbub. The story follows the lives of several teenagers over the course of their summer before high school. As the boys plot to sabotage and expose the chemical conglomerate responsible for their town's misfortune, a foreboding darkness looms over their respective friendships. I caught up with Corina to ask her several questions concerning the inspiration for her poignant first book.
I really liked all of the characters in My Chemical Mountain, but was especially drawn in by the protagonist Jason. I liked that he had a somewhat strained relationship with his mother even though, deep down, I got the sense that he really loved her. I also especially enjoyed his complex friendship with his best friend Charlie. I liked that they didn't always get along. He seemed annoyed and frustrated by Charlie a great deal of the time. Did you find that writing the relationships between the characters developed naturally? Or did it take substantial time to develop how the characters in the novel would interact with each other?
Jason, Charlie, and Cornpup haunted me with an urgency and a relentlessness I had not anticipated. They kept me awake at night. They talked inside my head constantly. I felt like they were always with me, even when I tried to shut them out. I had dreams about them often, and sometimes, because their lives were so dangerous, the dreams were nightmares. I worried about them making huge mistakes, getting hurt, getting into trouble, but of course I had to let them carve their own paths. That's the trick in character development. You can never save your characters from themselves, even if it breaks your heart. In fact, I would argue your characters must break your heart, that it's a requirement. When Jason's voice first ambushed me, I wasn't prepared for how real he would feel. I could taste his anger on my tongue. I could relate to his introspectiveness. I understood his hunger for revenge.
Then Charlie appeared, and he was this fun-loving livewire who took big risks and brushed everything off, and it was clear they'd clash at times, but I welcomed it because I was interested in how two friends could be so close they're practically brothers, and how that closeness deepens the friendship to a level where little explosions don't even make a dent. And when two characters clash, it's not always a recipe for tension. They also bring out brilliant aspects in each other. I think Jason is more adventurous because Charlie is in his life. Likewise, I think Charlie's generosity and empathy are inspired by Jason's creativity. What you said about Jason really loving his mother even though their relationship is strained, you're absolutely right. The love between them is enormous, but imperfect. I think a lot of the greatest loves in our lives are the most complicated. We hurt each other and forgive. We get lost and then we find our way. We lose patience because we know we can. We know the other person understands all the other weights we're carrying. When love is real, it's a safe haven, a place where we can reveal the darkest parts of ourselves without fearing rejection. Jason and his mother love each other fiercely, in the best possible way, where forgiveness happens without them even having to ask for it.
I did find Cornpup kind of insufferable. Blisters aside, I think we all knew a kid who was similar growing up. Where did you come up with the inspiration for the character?
I wrote the first outline for My Chemical Mountain in my car, while parked at the foot of a snow-covered and very toxic landfill in Western New York. I even had my windows cracked so I could smell the filthy air blowing in from a nearby asphalt plant. At the time, I thought I was there for authenticity, to study the setting, to observe how pollution feels, how it smells—and to an extent, that was true. But then something unexpected happened. My own feelings of fear started to swirl around inside me. The industrial yards were ominous, especially with a backdrop of a gray midwinter sky, and I knew this particular landfill was leaking radiation into a nearby creek, and I could feel my heartbeat quickening… but I forced myself to sit there. I forced myself to deal with the fear. Cornpup was born that very night.
Of all my characters, he is the most fearful. And fear is a tricky thing. In the right doses, it can motivate us to make careful choices and avoid danger. But if fear takes a stronghold, it can ruin us. It can trick us into becoming avoidant. It can infuse us with negativity. It can prevent us from taking an important leap. That's what has happened to Cornpup. He's too afraid to have fun. He's too afraid to live in the moment. Don't get me wrong: his concerns about the landfill are valid, and don't blame him for not jumping into the contaminated creek alongside Charlie and Jason. I just think he takes his fear too far, almost to the point of obsession, and I don't see it paying off for him in terms of getting the neighborhood cleaned up. On the contrary, it puts people off, and he suffers, and I think he's very lonely. I have known many Cornpups in my life. And at times, I've actually been a Cornpup, but I strive not to be. I don't want to be ruled by fear.
The descriptions of the setting within the novel really stand out for me, in particular the polluted lake where the boys would go swimming. I grew up in a small suburban town. It wasn't polluted, but I really felt that you really captured the atmosphere of small town life. Did you base many of the locations on real places? Perhaps a few from your own past?
I spent the first eighteen years of my life in a small town outside of Chicago. For the most part, I was happy. My closest friends and I met when we were very young and we grew up together. There was a sense that none of us would ever leave the town, and there was comfort in that. I remember neighborhood gatherings—pig roasts; hanging out at the home of the one kid who owned a pool; high school football games; ice cream socials—that seemed larger than life. On the flipside, small towns allow other things to grow larger than life. My stepdad was an alcoholic and everyone knew it. I was bullied by someone who seemed to follow me everywhere I went. And aside from the aforementioned special events, there was nothing to do for entertainment—no movie theater, no mall, not even one fast food restaurant—so we had to create our own thrills, albeit we didn't race dirt bikes down a landfill or break into abandoned factories as Charlie and Jason are liable to do.
I think my small town experiences provided a strong foundation for the setting, but living in Western New York near an extremely toxic landfill in my adulthood is what really breathed life into this book, because it reminded me that home is a part of us, whether we like it or not. One of my friends lived so close to the landfill it was basically a part of her backyard. She, along with some of her neighbors, had received official letters advising them not to eat any vegetables out of their gardens. I asked her if she was desperate to leave the area, and I expected her to say yes, but she said, "No. This is my home. All my best memories are here. I want the landfill cleaned up so I can stay." This same friend took me on a 'toxic tour' of her neighborhood. We visited the contaminated creek, some boarded-up houses, and a few old factories that were crumbling in disrepair. And I asked myself, what if this place was my home? What would it feel like to love this town? Jason stepped in and answered all of those questions for me. He loves his hometown, despite its flaws, and he's not willing to give up on it.
This is your first novel. What books would you say that you drew inspiration from? Are there a few titles you might recommend as read-a-likes? Can you tell us the next novel you are working on?
I started reading dangerous books at a young age. I say dangerous because adults plucked them out of my hands and said, "You're too young to be reading that." When I was 9, I remember buying a copy of Stephen King's IT at a garage sale. A teacher caught me reading it and confiscated the book on account of it being "written by the devil." I couldn't stand not knowing how it ended, so I went to the library and finished it there.
One summer, a librarian noticed that my reading tastes were dark and handed me a copy of The Outsiders. I finished the book in one sitting and was bowled over by the voice, the social dynamics, the rawness, the trouble, the tension—all of it. I started writing grittier pieces as a result, and to this day, I credit that librarian. I was starving for a certain type of book, and she knew precisely how to feed that hunger. The cool thing is how librarians work that kind of magic every day, so please let me take this opportunity to thank you, Ryan, for all that you and your fellow librarians do to turn readers on to exciting books.
As for My Chemical Mountain read-a-likes, I suggest S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, Louis Sachar's Holes, and Stephen King's short story "The Body" (later adapted into the film Stand By Me). I do have a new novel in the works. It's about a lonely fashionista in a pesticide-scorched world, where hazmat fashion is all the rage. Stay tuned!