Juggling Harvard, hefty book contract


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) – 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 hit shelves for another three weeks, but there sat dozens of her published work, each slapped with a headshot 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-colored 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 with Little, Brown when she was 17, and has already sold the movie rights of her first novel to DreamWorks.

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 teen who earns all A’s 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 admission’s office.

The heroine bears similarities to Viswanathan: Indian heritage, New Jersey upbringing, Harvard and both her 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 Viswanathan had an unrequited crush.

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

A month after the bookstore episode, Viswanathan schedules media interviews between exams. (“I’m stuck reading Shelley for this stupid midterm, which is killing me,” she says.)

Sipping hot cocoa in a cafe near school, Viswanathan 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.”

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 usual.”

Born in Madras, India, Viswanathan and her family immigrated to Scotland when she was 3. They moved again when she was 12 and landed in Milburn, N.J.

She was always a voracious reader, gobbling up children’s books, classics, and works by writers such as Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro. Like all readers, Viswanathan also has hidden, guilty pleasures.

“I really like trashy romance novels,” she says, her face reddening. “I don’t know if my mom should see that in print.”

Writing has always been a hobby, and as Viswanathan was applying to Harvard she showed a few short stories to her high school college counselor. The counselor, an author, was impressed, and showed the work to her agent.

The stories Viswanathan showed her counselor eventually made it to Little, Brown. She pitched a book in a chatty e-mail, and they inked a deal before she began her freshman year. (Neither Viswanathan nor Little, Brown will discuss the size of her advance.)

Working with the teenager was refreshing in some ways for Asya Muchnick, a senior editor at Little, Brown.

“Not all authors actually meet their deadlines,” says Muchnick. “She did.”

Viswanathan spent her “free time” her freshman year at Harvard in Lamont Library, clicking away on a laptop. She didn’t tell a soul about Opal.

“I’m sure people just thought I wrote more papers than anyone else at Harvard,” says Viswanathan.

“It’s all a bit surreal to me still,” Viswanathan says as she excuses herself to go to class.