NEW YORK—"I feel like the college years, it's the years where you're trying to figure yourself out through trial and error," said Megan McCafferty, the chick-lit novelist whose work was “internalized” by Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan.
McCafferty, who spoke to her fans at a public library in Manhattan today, was referring not to Viswanathan but Jessica Darling, the Ivy League protagonist of her popular book series. "I wanted Jessica to make a lot of mistakes," McCafferty said, "so that she could learn from them."
But in a scandal fueled by similarities, Jessica Darling sounded a lot like Viswanathan, whose writing, it was revealed over the weekend, sounds a lot like McCafferty's. The two authors were both in New York City today, with Viswanathan appearing on NBC's morning show just six blocks south of where McCafferty made her first public appearance since becoming ensnarled in a plagiarism controversy that has captivated the publishing industry.
McCafferty declined to comment, however, on Viswanathan or the escalating exchange of words between their two publishers, Random House and Little, Brown. Viswanathan has acknowledged using passages similar to those in two of McCafferty's works, though the young author said again today that she had done so unintentionally.
A phalanx of officials from Random House and the New York Public Library closely guarded McCafferty at the Donnell Library Center and repeatedly reminded members of the media that she would have nothing to say about the plagiarism charges. Reporters and photographers from the New York Post, New York Daily News, National Public Radio, and the publishing blog GalleyCat turned out for the event, which had been scheduled in advance to promote the latest installment of her series, "Charmed Thirds."
Audience members submitted questions for McCafferty on note cards, but she skipped over several that referred to Viswanathan, choosing instead to answer questions about her career path (McCafferty quit her job at Cosmopolitan magazine to write her first book) and her writing style. "I think the only way you can become a writer," she said, "is through honing your voice, creating your own voice."
Random House says it has documented 45 passages
in Viswanathan's novel, "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life," that bear striking similarities to McCafferty's first two books, "Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Helpings." The publishing house said yesterday that it was not satisfied by Viswanathan's apology or explanation, and would not rule out legal action against her and her publisher, Little, Brown.
Many of McCafferty's fans said in interviews after the event that some sort of punishment for Viswanathan would be appropriate. Adrianna Markel, who will join the Class of 2010 this September, had little sympathy for her fellow Harvardian.
"I think it should have an impact on whether she can write that second book," Markel said, clutching a signed copy of McCafferty's new novel. "Because, who would want to read it?"
Viswanathan's novel, the first of a two-book deal with Little, Brown reportedly valued at $500,000, generated heavy sales in its first weeks of publication, thanks in part to widespread media coverage of the precocious Harvard sophomore. The New York Public Library system has ordered 91 copies of the book, and 116 patrons are waiting for copies to become available, according to a librarian who looked up the figures today.
Megan Martin, a senior at White Plains High School, said she had read "Opal Mehta" when it first hit bookstores earlier this month and was immediately struck by the resemblance to the work of her favorite author.
"I was just like, this sounds really similar," Martin said. "The Jessica Darling series got me through high school, and it was surprising, upsetting to see someone just copy it."