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NRI Harvard Freshman author, 17, agreed for a first novel deal $500,000 from publisher


NRI, Viswanathan's publisher recall all editions of the novel

New Yorkm April 27, 2006
Sharda Brothers

NRI Viswanathan's publisher of “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life" said today that it has decided to recall all editions of the novel. Her planned book promotion tour in London has also been cancelled

Publisher requested all retail and wholesale stores to stop selling the novel and send back any unsold copies.We are pleased that this matter has been resolved in an appropriate and timely fashion.

  • NRI, Viswanathan apologized to McCafferty for unconscious copying Few Phrases: Kaavya Viswanathan’s ‘Opal Mehta’ includes several passages nearly identical to another author’s earlier work; that work's publisher is looking into the matter ......Full Story

February 22, 2006
The six-figure sophomore
How Kaavya Viswanathan got noticed, got an agent,and got a monster two-novel contract
By David Mehegan, Globe Staff |

CAMBRIDGE -- She seems at first like a delicate person, dressed in green, but it soon becomes clear that Kaavya Viswanathan, 19, is capable of heavy lifting. Arriving at Harvard as a freshman in September 2004 would have been challenge enough for most young people. But a month later another little project presented itself.

Out of the blue came a contract for close to $500,000 from publisher Little, Brown & Co. for a first novel she had only started and a second she had barely imagined. She was 17.

No problem. While taking a full five-course load, Viswanathan banged out ''How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life" in her free time. The book is done and due out in April, and Little, Brown is convinced it has signed up one of the hottest young talents in fiction.

''I still don't believe it, even now," Viswanathan said in an interview by the library fireplace in Winthrop House. ''It is so surreal."

To Little, Brown, it's real indeed and worth the price. ''Opal Mehta" is a clever novel by a promising author, directed at an audience the publisher hopes will eat up this tale of a girl who loves her overbearing parents but learns to get in touch with her own dreams and ambitions.

Michael Pietsch, the head of Little, Brown, said the publisher wasn't out beating the bushes for such a book but grabbed it when it was offered. ''It's purely a response to the work and idea," he said. ''She has a remarkable range of capabilities, a seeming effortlessness. That's more astonishing than anything." He added, ''I've been in this business since 1978, and it's my first experience signing up an author in her teens; in fact, with several teen years to go." There's enough early buzz and interest for at least a 75,000-copy first printing.

Many a writer flogs the keyboard for years, tossing novels and stories over agents' and publishers' transoms, without success. But sometimes it all just comes together, without apparent struggle. This is one of those cases.

Kaavya Viswanathan was born in Madras (now called Chennai), India, and lived in England from age 3 to about 12, when her parents, who are doctors, moved to the United States. In England and New Jersey, she was mad for music (she sang and played piano) and horses and loved reading, too. ''I would get into trouble because I wanted to stay up late, and my mom would come into the bedroom when I was 5 or 6, and I would have the flashlight under the blanket," she said. ''It became a punishment if I was in trouble -- no reading at meals, no books at the table."

In her novel, the parents of an Indian-American girl from New Jersey are so obsessed with her going to Harvard that starting when she is in kindergarten they hatch a long-term strategy called ''HOWGIH" -- ''How Opal Will Get Into Harvard" -- to develop her academic qualifications. But in Opal's Harvard admission interview, the dean tells her that she also needs to have some fun, have some social experiences -- get a life, in other words -- to be suitable for the university.

Opal and her parents are shocked, and her father quickly cooks up a new plan, ''HOWGAL" -- ''How Opal Will Get a Life." With her parents driving her (physics magazines in the house are replaced with teen magazines), Opal pursues popularity in the same relentless way that she built her academic resume. Of course, she succeeds. But as she has more fun, becomes a favorite at school, and gets a boyfriend, she becomes increasingly conflicted about her own real longings and ambitions.

Despite the similarities in background between herself and her character, Viswanathan said firmly that she is not Opal and that her novel is not an autobiography. ''We were not the stereotypical South Asian family -- 'You've got to go to medical school,' " she said.

Her father is a neurosurgeon and her mother is an obstetrician, not currently in practice. ''They were always amazingly supportive," Viswanathan said. ''They never tried to push me. It was always, 'Do what you want, find out what makes you happy.' The complete opposite of this book at the beginning." Nevertheless, Viswanathan said, ''I think they were a bit surprised, because I am the first person in the family -- aunts, uncles, cousins -- who has ever shown the slightest inclination to a creative side."

They got over their surprise quite early, though. ''When she was 3 or 4, she was an extensive reader and a great thinker," said her mother, Mary Jayanthi Sundaram. ''She liked poetry as a young child. At age 7, when she was in the third grade, she was a great horseback rider and decided to write a book, 'Pinewood Stables.' It was about 100 pages."

Having read ''Opal Mehta," Sundaram said, ''It's very funny, and I realized I could identify a little bit of me and my husband." But, she said, ''We are not like the Mehtas. We always gave her a lot of freedom to do what she wanted. We encouraged her to slow down. She's very driven. Even now, she's taking five courses. We told her there is no need to take five. She never listens." She added: ''We're extremely proud of her; I'm always smiling when I talk about her."

Except for the lack of parental pressure, however, it's pretty clear that Opal Mehta's social milieu is not altogether alien to Viswanathan

''My mom's dad bought me my first copy of 'Great Expectations' when I was 6 or 7," she said, ''and every time I talked to him or saw him -- he's in Madras -- he would say, 'Don't forget, I have great expectations for you,' and this great expectation was that I would be a doctor. When I made it clear that I'm not doing pre-med requirements, not going to medical school, he was disappointed. Not in a rip-the-family-apart, you're-disowned-forever kind of way, but there was a level of, oh she wants to be a writer. How nice."

Despite her interest in the humanities, Viswanathan attended high school at the Academy for the Advancement of Science and Technology in Hackensack, N.J. ''I was a complete misfit," she said. ''I did well, but I had to work really hard. Left to my own devices, all I would do is take literature classes." She also found time to be editor of the school newspaper and be on the debate team.

She had written poems and short stories since she was a child, even published a few in children's magazines. She showed her short stories to Katherine Cohen, her high-school college counselor, who was herself an author (''Rock Hard Apps: How to Write the Killer College Application") represented by New York agent Suzanne Gluck of the William Morris Agency. Cohen showed the samples to Gluck, who was impressed. Eventually the young writer was referred to Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, another Morris agent.

Walsh said she knew right away that Viswanathan had the talent. What she didn't have was a ''commercially viable" work. Viswanathan's original idea for a novel was much darker than ''Opal." The agency referred her to 17th Street Productions, a so-called book packager that specializes in developing projects in young-adult and middle-grade fiction. The editors there proposed that Viswanathan put her mind to something lighter, something closer to her own background.

''After lots of discussions about 'finding my voice,' " Viswanathan said, ''I sat down and wrote them a fun, chatty e-mail about myself, which is where the voice and idea for Opal came from." She worked with 17th Street to flesh out the concept.

''They sent it to me, and I flipped over it," Walsh said. ''We all recognized that Kaavya had the craftsmanship, she's beautiful and charming, she just needed to find the right novel that would speak to her generation and to people beyond her years as well. We worked on it some more and sold it for oodles and boodles of money." Neither author nor agent would confirm or deny the $500,000 figure. The offer, which followed a brief auction, was first reported in The New York Sun and picked up in the Indian press. A typical advance for a first novel would be $20,000 or less.

''There was more shaping to this book than we generally do," said Asya Muchnick, senior editor at Little, Brown. Viswanathan had written a few chapters and a detailed plot synopsis, and had to get the book finished in and around her studies (she recently changed her concentration from history and literature to English).

''In the last few months of my freshman year, I was writing 50 pages every two weeks," she said. ''It was pretty bad. Every time I wasn't in classes, I would just write. In the last two weeks of school, I was studying for finals while trying to get the last 50 pages done."

This year, Viswanathan has been able to have more of a normal student life. Although she's still working hard -- she's a test grader for the economics department and hopes to work as a research assistant in the English department -- it's clear her life isn't the all work/no play grind that Opal Mehta's is at the start of the novel.

''I'm not a recluse," she said, adding later by e-mail: ''I'm in a sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma, and a social club, the Isis Club. I love going out with my friends, so weekend nights find me on the party circuit. I'm also addicted to shopping, manicures and pedicures, eating expensive dinners, and watching 'Sex and the City.' " She spent last summer in Paris.

And the second novel? Not exactly a sequel, but more from Opal Mehta's world. ''I still love Opal," Viswanathan said, ''and I feel she definitely has room to grow. I don't want to abandon her yet."

After college, she said, she expects to work on Wall Street, possibly in investment banking. ''Writing is not anything I see as my job," she said. ''It's just something I would do. Even now, I get itchy, I want to start writing again, and I haven't had time because I've been studying economics for finals all day. It's not some extraordinary activity. It's just, you go to meals, you sleep, you write."


Most prestigious American publisher $500,000 deal with NRI Harvard Freshman author
Ms. Viswanathan was the youngest writer the agency had taken on in its 109-year history.


New York, April 22, 2005
- Special to the Sun

Kaavya Viswanathan is set on becoming an investment banker when she graduates from Harvard University in 2008, but a phone call that the 17-year-old freshman received from a literary agent might just cause a change in her plans.

The agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh of the William Morris Agency, told the Franklin Hills, N.J.-born Ms. Viswanathan that Little Brown & Company, one of the oldest and most prestigious American publishers - now part of the Time Warner Group - agreed to a two-book deal with the teenager. The sum approached $500,000, a staggering amount for an unpublished writer, let alone someone who'd barely left home for college.

"I still cannot believe this. I never expected this would happen," Ms. Viswanathan told The New York Sun yesterday. "I had only vaguely thought of becoming a writer. But a book contract? From a major publisher? This is so incredibly unbelievable. It's so hard to believe that I'm going to be able to walk into a bookstore and see something that I wrote on display there."

Both her books will be fiction. Ms. Viswanathan said she expects to deliver the first volume, tentatively titled "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got In," by the end of next month. The novel is expected to be published next spring.

Little, Brown's publisher and senior vice president, Michael Pietsch, said last night through an aide that the company doesn't comment on authors' advances. Mr. Pietsch is handling Ms. Viswanathan's book, along with another Little, Brown editor, Asya Muchnick. Most first-time writers of fiction receive advances of less than $10,000, according to the editor of Writer's Digest Books, Donya Dickerson.

Ms. Viswanathan said she's already written more than 150 pages, or more than a third of the manuscript.

"It's a little tough to do this writing and also juggle classes and the homework," she said. "This is a big-time commitment. It's not like writing an essay for a class."

Ms. Viswanathan began writing the novel while still at the Bergen County Academy at Hackensack. She's the only child of her Indian-born parents, Viswanathan Rajaraman, a neurosurgeon, and Mary Sundaram, a gynecologist.

"Everybody in my family, including my parents, won science prizes," Ms. Viswanathan said. "I was the one with the writing gene - and I've no idea where that came from. My parents are still in a state of shock. When I've gone home on some weekends, they look at me working at my computer and surely wonder, 'Who is that strange person?' "

Her parents, who are vacationing in India, could not be reached for comment yesterday. And how did Ms. Viswanathan's novel come to the attention of Ms. Walsh at William Morris?

"My parents had gone to college in India, and they felt unfamiliar with the college-application process in America," Ms. Viswanathan said. "So they signed me up with Dr. Katherine Cohen's IvyWise as an extra safeguard." IvyWise is a service that prepares students for college admissions.

"I always wanted to get into Harvard," the teenager said, "and I received an early acceptance."

Ms. Cohen said yesterday that when she saw Ms. Viswanathan's resume, she wondered why the student hadn't highlighted the fact that she was writing a novel. Then she asked Ms. Viswanathan to bring in her work.

"I was so charmed by what I read," Ms. Cohen said. "I immediately sensed that here was a star in the making. So I called my own agent at William Morris, Suzanne Gluck, and told her about Kaavya."

Ms. Gluck showed the manuscript to Ms. Walsh, who handles fiction at the agency. She was impressed and shopped it around, and Little, Brown offered the highest advance. Ms. Viswanathan was the youngest writer the agency had taken on in its 109-year history.

"I still remember the moment when Kaavya called me and said, 'Have you heard? Have you heard?' "Ms. Cohen said. "When I heard the size of the advance, I nearly fell off my chair. I have several novelist friends, and nobody I know has received that kind of money. I'm very proud of her - and I'm proud that I was able to play a role in her success."

Strangely, Ms. Viswanathan's novel is a case of life imitating art. Her plot was hatched well before she signed up with Ms. Cohen and was accepted by Harvard.

"The main character is a girl of Indian descent who's totally academically driven, and when she senses from a Harvard admissions officer that her personal life wasn't perhaps well-rounded, Ms. Mehta goes out and does what she thinks 'regular' American kids do - get drunk, kiss boys, dance on the table," Ms. Viswanathan said.

Does her fictional character get into Harvard? Only the novel will tell.

  • May 21, 2004:

    If your child's high school counselor is overworked or underinformed, you may want to hire a freelancer. Harvard-bound Kaavya Viswanathan, from Franklin Lakes, N.J., signed on with IvyWise, a counseling firm with offices in New York and Beverly Hills, during her junior year. "They take all the raw material and help you put it together in the way that an admissions officer is going to be most impressed by," she says.
  • Thirteen Academy Students Named Finalists for Govenor's School

    March 2003 ... Pat Cosgrove, Principal of the Bergen County Academies, recently announced that thirteen students were nominated for the Governor's School. The winners will be announced later this month. The students are:

    School of the Arts: Jennifer Friedman (Art); Kaavya Viswanathan (Creative Writing); Paige Reilly (Drama); Judy Yoo, Rebecca Lee, Louis Mark, Daniel Kozlowski and Sherry Chung (Instrumental); Joe Gregg (School of Engineering & Technology); Jennifer Luo (School of Environmental); Elizabeth Gordon (School of International Studies); Lina Jun (Public Issues and the Future of New Jersey) and Ben Herschenfeld (School in the Sciences).

    The Governor's School of New Jersey, established in 1982, is a unique summer residential program for artistically and academically talented students. For one month each summer, the Governor's School offers intensive learning experiences on six college campuses for students who have completed their junior year of high school. Each Governor's School campus has a special focus. Students are nominated through guidance counselors at their high schools. Approximately 600 students participate in the program each year.






Kaavya Viswanathan

How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, And Got a Life (A Novel)
by: Kaavya Viswanathan
Hardcover (Hardcover)