April 2006

Kaavya Viswanathan

An unusual path to the Ivy League
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Editor's note: After this interview was completed, it was revealed that passages from How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life had been plagiarized from the works of Salman Rushdie, Meg Cabot and others. Viswanathan's contract for her second book was cancelled and Opal Mehta was pulled from bookstore shelves.

Nowadays, young writers with major book deals are no longer a novelty. Author Christopher Paolini's Inheritance trilogy was headed to the big screen before he reached college age, and Zadie Smith's White Teeth was written when she was only 23 years old. But even among stories like these, Kaavya Viswanathan's unusual path to publication stands out. Viswanathan was a high-school senior when her college advisor discovered she was writing a novel. The advisor asked to see it, recognized its potential and sent it off to her agent at the William Morris Agency. A short time later, the then-17-year-old Viswanathan became the youngest person ever signed by the agency, and she eventually received a two-book, $500,000 contract from Little, Brown. Not bad for someone whose ultimate career goal is investment banking.

How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life is the humorous, heartfelt story of an Indian-American teenager who's worked her whole life to get into Harvard. Opal's résumé is textbook perfect, but during her early action interview, the dean poses one question she can't answer: what do you do for fun? He promises her a second chance at getting in, if she finds an answer to the question before the regular admissions interviews in January. But how does a girl who's spent her life being perfect suddenly become cool? Now a sophomore at Harvard, Viswanathan answered a few questions about Opal's journey and the realities of Ivy League life.

You were accepted by early action to Harvard. How much did your experiences during the application process inspire your novel?
Although my application process was (fortunately!) nothing like Opal's, it was definitely an extremely stressful and competitive time. My high school traditionally sends several students to Ivy League universities, and Senior Fall was a very intense, high-pressure semester, with everyone frantically pulling their applications together. It was the memory of how competitive applications became that inspired me to write Opal, because if applying was bad for me, I couldn't imagine how awful it would be for people whose families were involved too!

At the beginning of the novel, Opal has a hard time with the work/life balance, something everyone struggles with (though maybe not to such an extreme!). How do you maintain balance in your own life?
I really believe that college is about friends and experiences more than work, so I guess I've already made a choice about priorities in my work/life balance! But I try to limit myself to classes and activities that I'm passionate about, and I don't stress about not being perfect. If going to a friend's birthday party means not doing one chapter of reading, well, life is all about trade-offs.

How have the students at Harvard reacted to your book?
I've not really told anybody apart from close friends. All the students who know have been wonderful incredibly supportive and encouraging.

Near the end of the book, Opal pays a visit to Harvard that changes her perception of the school. Did Harvard live up to your expectations?
Harvard has been the most amazing experience of my life so far. It surpassed all my expectations, and I couldn't have hoped for a more incredible time at college.

Now that DreamWorks has optioned your book, which actors would you choose to play your main characters in the film?
This is the hardest question, because I don't ever watch Indian movies so I don't know any Indian actors. And I don't think there are that many around in Hollywood either. I'd love to have a cameo, though.

As a young writer, which authors inspire you?
The author who inspires me the most would have to be Kazuo Ishiguro. I've read almost all of his books and I am always struck by how he manages to inhabit a different world and create a different voice each time. I also fell in love with Amitav Ghosh after reading The Shadow Lines, and funnily enough, he's teaching one of my courses this semester (I'm still trying to work up the nerve to ask for his autograph).

Any advice for students aiming for the Ivy League?
Grades really are important, but beyond grades and scores, find something you are passionate about and let that shine through in your application. Show that you've put effort and initiative into pursuing a subject or interest that you really care about.

What's the subject of your next book?
It's still Opal and her family. She's having a wonderful time at Harvard, but her life is never simple, is it?


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