Corina Vacco was voted "Most Likely to Write a Prize-Winning Novel" her senior year at Marengo High School.
Those who voted knew what they were talking about. A 1995 graduate of the school, Vacco now lives in Berkely, Calif., and will release her first novel, "My Chemical Mountain," on Tuesday.
The young adult novel already has won the Delacorte Prize for a First Young Adult Novel, an honor bestowed by Random House, the world's largest English language trade publisher. Vacco's novel was chosen for the prize from among 640 submitted manuscripts, with 12 editors voting.
The prize came after years of submitting her novel, as well as revisions, to publishers.
"It took awhile to sink in when I got that phone call," she said of the call she received from Random House announcing the win.
It came after she'd received numerous rejections, with agents telling her, "We don't think we'll be able to sell it." Because of this, she encourages other writers not to give up.
"I've always wanted to be an author," said Vacco, whose parents are Jennifer (Geres) Sullivan of Marengo and Jay Berman, who now lives in Woodstock. Her stepmother is Kathy Margason. Vacco went by the name Corina Berman while living in Marengo until age 18.
Growing up in Marengo, she said, she was inspired to write on cold, rainy days.
"I wrote my first novel when I was 7 in pencil with water color illustrations. It was dreadful, but I've always wanted to write. ... My grandma took me to the Marengo library ever day when I was a little girl. She used to let me fill a cart with books," she said.
Vacco wrote the first draft of "My Chemical Mountain" while living in western New York, where she researched a nearby town situated near one of the most dangerous landfills in the world.
The landfill contained chemical sludge from Love Canal, a now defunct neighborhood in Niagra Falls, N.Y. An elementary school was adjacent to the landfill.
As described by Vacco, the novel tells the story of a boy who breaks into the abandoned mills and factories that plague his run-down town after his father dies. While he and his two best friends rage against the noxious pollution that suffocates their town, they also embrace the danger of their industrial wasteland and boast about living on the edge.
"They have lots of folklore to explain these weird things that go on in the landfill," she said. Barrels containing toxic chemicals buried in a field provide the setting for robot wars. Green creek water is created by aliens.
With a strong theme of friendship and loyalty, the novel is being compared with "The Outsiders."
Vacco, who moves often with her husband, who serves in the U.S. Coast Guard, said she was writing a fantasy novel when she stumbled upon the inspiration for "My Chemical Mountain." The family was headed to Buffalo, N.Y., and Vacco was researching where to live.
Based on her research, she had ruled out anywhere near Love Canal but became intrigued by the town. When the family moved into downtown Buffalo, Vacco drove to a town meeting about 12 miles away in which a panel was fielding questions about the pollution.
Told not to eat vegetables from their gardens, those who spoke had mixed feelings about the situation, most of them unable to sell their homes. Some were employed by the chemical company and afraid to lose jobs.
"I was very interested in the idea of not having a cut and dry view toward the pollution," Vacco said. "There's the attitude where 'This is my home. I've been here all my life. I don't want to leave.' "
One boy particularly inspired Vacco when he spoke. He and his friends had grown up playing in the landfill and were coming to realize how dangerous it had been.
She imagined a book written about the town from the perspective of these boys, not necessarily how Erin Brokovich would see it, as that's already been done, she said.
"I couldn't forget the energy of that boy and how he changed the room," she said. "He had given people passion, inspired people."
The story unfolded from there, with Vacco writing an outline of the novel while sitting in her parked car, with her window cracked, across from the actual landfill. She worked on it for about four or five years before sending it in to publishers.
"It's a story about finding your voice when the powers-that-be want to silence you," Vacco said.