Booking the Real Thing

The $500,000 sophomore’s debut novel is on the shelf and a movie adaptation’s in the works. But is it a gift or a curse?

Kaavya Viswanathan ’08 wrote a book last year. It is a pretty good book; it is thick, orange, and intended for young adults.

To a large extent, it is a book about Harvard—to a lesser extent, it is a book about cruelty, madness, and the post-colonial alienation of a young Indian girl from New Jersey.

A publishing imprint of Time Warner paid Viswanathan half-a-million dollars for it upfront, and Dreamworks Studios will pay her even more when they turn it into a movie. If she isn’t already, Viswanathan will become very famous, very soon. And when Warner puts the gas on her book’s marketing campaign next week, she will join the swelling/swollen ranks of young Ivy-bred writers who have traded their ability to lead normal undergraduate lives for literary celebrity.

Viswanathan’s book, now on sale at Harvard Bookstore and the Coop, is called “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life.” It is about an over-achieving Indian girl in her senior year of high school, whose lifelong goal to attend Harvard is derailed when the Dean of Admissions finds out she has no friends and doesn’t know how to have fun. Despite Opal’s impeccable resumé, the dean basically tells her that she’s too nerdy for college (not cool enough for school), and that for the next few months, she should “get out there and experience being young.” At first, Opal is taken aback, but by the end of chapter two, she pulls it together and does what she has to do: ditches her old lunch table, trades the books in for looks, and with the help of her hyperactive parents, drafts a plan to become the most popular girl at Woodcliff High.

Okay, so the chick-lit plot’s not exactly Natalie Krinsky’s “Chloe Does Yale” or Nick McDonell ’06’s “Twelve.” There are barely any drugs, the narrator is more concerned with drinking Diet Coke than selling cocaine, and over the course of 200 pages, there is only one “fuck,” one “kiss,” and one imaginary handjob.

All told, this is a children’s story—a fairy tale, more or less, built on archetypal stock characters and a simplistic, familiar plot. And if readers—particularly readers who go to school with her—associate the real Kaavya Viswanathan with the caricature she has created in Opal Mehta, the shadow of her novel may prove to be a hard one to overcome.

WHAT’S REALLY REAL

The struggle has already begun—last month, Viswanathan “firmly” told the Boston Globe that the novel is not an autobiography, and that Opal is nothing more than a fictional character.

It’s hard to avoid tracing the similarities, though, and despite what Viswanathan has said, one must wonder, is Opal actually self-referential—a sort of “Mehta”-fiction? Where does its plot end and Viswanathan’s real life begin?

FM wanted to do the question justice, so we did what any college student would—we hit the Facebook and started IMing her friends.

First, we met Iris Priddy, a sophomore at Georgetown who gave us the scoop on Viswanathan’s middle school years.

“She was really fun to hang out with—we were like best friends,” she said in a high-tech interview conducted over AIM.

Priddy said she and Viswanathan occupied their time with “normal girlie stuff,” like homework, tennis, and sleepovers. Sounds typical enough, but according to Priddy, Viswanathan established herself as an extraordinary student and a creative writer very early on. “She read a LOT and really fast (she was famous in school for it),” Priddy said. “I always thought writing was her all time favorite thing to do.”

Back then, according to Priddy, Viswanathan’s writing was more often about “princes and princesses” than it was about college, boys, or social anxiety.

The two girls headed for different high schools after eighth grade, but Priddy said that Viswanathan “got WAY more into dressing nicely and makeup and stuff in high school."

“She used to not care, no expensive clothes or anything," she added. "From what I heard, she seemed to be pretty popular then.”

Viswanathan started dating in high school, according to Priddy—something she had never done before—“probably because boys started noticing her, and she started noticing them.”

Eugene Goldberg, another sophomore at Georgetown, knew Viswanathan during those high school years, when both of them attended a prestigious magnet institution called Bergen County Academy.
“Kaaaaaaavya from Haaaaavard—it just rolls off your tongue,” he said, LOLing occasionally. “Kaavya was one of the girls that would do everything our school allowed and then go take more AP classes in a local university. You knew from freshman year that she was going to Harvard.”

During our hour-long laptop interview, Goldberg told FM that although he made fun of Viswanathan “more than anyone,” it was always in the name of friendly sarcasm. “The girl has a sense of humor,” he said.

GETTING DISCOVERED

Her teachers, it seems, were pretty big fans too. “She stood out as a remarkable student,” said Bill Mendelsohn, an English teacher at Bergen. According to Mendelsohn, Viswanathan was the editor-in-chief of the school’s online magazine, as well as an active member of the Model UN team and the debate team.

According to a 2004 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Viswanathan actively pursued her college ambitions, sending “personal e-mail messages and calling admissions representatives at each institution to let them know how serious she was about attending their college.”

She wasn’t all business, though, according to English teacher Richard Weems, who taught Viswanathan world literature during her junior year. Weems told FM that Viswanathan always seemed comfortable in the humanities, and that her creative efforts were always well-received. The summer before her senior year, Weems said, he helped her prepare her application for a creative writing class at the super-competitive Governor’s School summer program in New Jersey. Even though she didn’t get in, she still won more awards for poetry and prose than any of her classmates in the Bergen science academy.

“I remember being impressed,” Weems told FM over the phone. “Her prose pieces were these love story vignettes, which when you deal with high school students can be quite dreadful. They were quite precise. I thought it was some really tight writing.”

“Really tight” is an understatement, according to Katherine Cohen, Viswanathan’s guidance counselor at the IvyWise college prep program.

Cohen was the one who hooked Viswanathan up with a literary agent during her junior year—in a way, she’s the one who first discovered the 16-year-old.

“I just said, you know, we’ll see what happens, not expecting anything necessarily,” Cohen told FM in a phone interview last week. “But I wanted to give her a chance because she really is an amazing writer. A few weeks later, [William Morris agent] Suzanne [Gluck] had gotten [her writing samples], read them, and called me the next day and said ‘bring her in.’ Kaavya took the meeting with me...and basically by the end of the meeting they had signed her.”

That was in September of Viswanathan’s senior year, right before early action applications were due at Harvard. According to Cohen, it was around that time that Viswanathan and her new agent started working on the concept for "Opal Mehta" and shopping the proposal around to various publishing houses.

But as the story of Opal’s early action rejection took shape, Viswanathan herself had substantially better luck: she was accepted early, and a year later, Time Warner publishing house Little, Brown, and Co. picked up her pitch based on a few sample chapters and a synopsis for the rest of the book. After that, they sent it through a branding/packaging company called 17th Street Productions, who helped shape the work in progress into something that would be more easily marketable to young adults.

Her editor, Asya Muchnick, told the Globe last month that ‘’there was more shaping to this book” than Little, Brown, and Co. was used to doing.

“She was very mature and patient about fielding editorial comments,” Muchnick told FM in an e-mail, “but she never let herself be intimidated by them, and she was confident about telling me when she disagreed —and she was often right!”

TWO “I”’S IN “IDENTITY”

Muchnick said she’d be working with Viswanathan again for her second book, and Cohen, for her part, still keeps in touch with the young author even though her days of needing college-application advice are long over. Cohen said she loved the early proof of "Opal Mehta" so much that she tore through it in a single day.

“It goes to show how talented she is, because it’s not autobiographical,” Cohen said, explaining that although the basic premise of the book might have some bearing in Viswanathan’s life, the two girls could not be more different. “All through high school...she was very balanced—she had friends and a social life, she went shopping, she loved going out, and having snowball fights.”

Viswanathan seems to be fitting in equally quite well at Harvard--socially and otherwise. She’s part of the Isis Club and a member of Women in Business, for instance, and on top of her schoolwork and her writing, she’s one of three Harvard kids working for the national student investment firm Global Platinum Securities (according to a colleague who recruited her, she recommends stocks to the company’s investment committee, and she intends to pursue finance—not writing—as a career after graduation).

And if Opal Mehta ever seemed uncomfortable with alcohol and partying, Viswanathan seems like she’s got it pretty well under control: part of her Facebook “about me” reads “Wednesdays are the new Saturdays,” and one of her listed interests is “morning-after calls with Lauren.”

JOINING THE RANKS

So what’s this about madness, cruelty, and imperialism in this well-adjusted sophomore’s novel, then? Well, seriously, it’s all there! No spoilers, but no harm in revealing a few emblematic details of Opal’s weird, scary life: her parents, for starters, are wildly irrational and possibly schizophrenic, encouraging their daughter to drink, wear short skirts, and seduce a boy who wants to be known as the conservative face of Woodcliff High. Throughout the book, Opal’s father clownishly apes hip-hop slang and says things like “Don’t be trippin’, Opal.”

At one point, the poor girl compares her tragic assimilation into high school high society to Operation Desert Storm; at another, she says that the lunchroom hierarchy at Woodcliff is like the caste system in India.

Finally, the “popular” girls she befriends literally call themselves the “Haute Bitchez”— and at one point, they talk about fucking a guy so hard on Prom Night that he needs to take Viagra afterwards.

Only vaguely discomforting but discomforting nevertheless. Sure enough, as Viswanathan obsessively references contemporary singers/shows and prods her readers to think about what it means to grow up too fast and what it feels like to be a cliché, it becomes clear that she’s following proudly in the tradition of Ivy League literary wunderkinds like Nick McDonell, Natalie Krinsky, and Liz Wurtzel ’89. Just like them, Viswanathan is compulsively concerned with authenticity and the anxiety of alienation.

Whether or not that concern grew out of her personal experience is not an easy riddle to solve—and perhaps it would be more productively attempted by a reporter who actually got to interview her. In the meantime, the text is all there is.

Well, at least until she writes her second book. And if it’s true what she’s been telling the papers about sticking with Opel Mehta as the protagonist, then Harvard’s in for quite a ride.

--R. Drew Davis '08 contributed to the reporting of this article.
--Vivien Wu '08 contributed to the reporting of this article.