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'Opal' juggles college and contract

19-year old Kaavya Viswanathan was offered a $500,000 two-book deal when she was 17.

india Updated: Apr 24, 2006 15:29 IST
Associated Press
Associated Press

By Andrew Ryan

Kaavya Viswanathan stumbled into her college bookstore one lazy Saturday and came face-to-face with a startling sight: a book-sized picture of herself. The 19-year-old Harvard University sophomore's debut novel wasn't supposed to come out for another three weeks, but there sat dozens of her published work, each slapped with a head shot that took up the entire back cover.

"I started to hyperventilate, and I burst into tears," says the petite teenager, the youngest author signed in decades by Little, Brown and Co.

A friend pointed at Viswanathan and screamed: "She's the one who wrote that book!"

With her face as bright as her book's fuchsia-coloured binding, Viswanathan scribbled a few autographs, not knowing what to write. Such is the life of an author who signed a hefty two-book deal when she was 17, and has already sold the movie rights of her first novel to DreamWorks.

At 17, Kaavya Viswanathan was offered a two book contract which contains a startling number of zeroes

The 320-page book is titled How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. It tells the story of Opal, a hard-driving young woman who earns all As in high school but gets rejected from Harvard because she forgot to have a social life. Opal's father concocts a plan code-named HOWGAL (How Opal Will Get A Life) to get her past the admissions office.

The heroine bears similarities to Viswanathan: Indian heritage, New Jersey upbringing, Harvard and both her father and Opal's father drive Range Rovers. There's also a teenage boy in the book who has a striking resemblance to a classmate for whom the author had an unrequited crush.

But those are just superficial details, the author says; Opal is pure fiction.

A month after the bookstore episode, Viswanathan schedules media interviews between exams. ("I'm stuck reading Shelley for this stupid mid-term, which is killing me," she says.) Viswanathan tucks a stray lock of her inky-black hair behind an ear and flashes a smile that shows off her high cheek bones, as she sits in a cafe near school sipping cocoa. She seems like any other 19-year-old at Harvard: She's smart, worldly and confident, but still has teenage idiosyncrasies, occasionally biting her lower lip, fidgeting in her chair and talking too fast when she's excited. "Well, yeah, I mean I always wanted to be a writer eventually, but I wasn't ever really thinking like in terms of this young," Viswanathan says without a breath. "I mean I always fantasized about when I'm 30, I'll go become a British citizen and win the Man Booker award. That's still my big goal."

Cover of Kaavya Viswanathan's novel

No matter how old, Viswanathan's success is no mistake, says Amitav Ghosh, a visiting professor who teaches creative writing at Harvard and didn't see his first book in print until he was 30. "She has astonishing poise," says Ghosh. "At Harvard, there are many, many very fine writers. Her writing has a kind of a pitch-perfect novelist's diction. At her age, that is very unusual."

First Published: Apr 22, 2006 13:34 IST

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