The teenage plagiarist

Steve Bloomfield and Andrew Gumbel piece together the extraordinary tale of the Scottish-raised Harvard student who got her fingers burnt. (And it's all their own work)
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The Independent Online

Kaavya Viswanathan should have made a garlanded return to Britain this week. The 19-year-old author, who spent seven years of her childhood in Scotland, was due in London on a publicity tour for her debut novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life.

Newspaper and television interviews had been planned. A slot on Richard & Judy was mooted. Everything was in place for America's latest teen publishing sensation to take Britain by storm. Instead, the Harvard student was yesterday back on campus, her $500,000 (£270,000) contract ripped up and her novel off the shelves after a plagiarism row that broke over a book which is not so much chick-lit as nick-lit.

And that's not all. The number of novelists that appear to have been plagiarised in the book is growing by the day - similarities have now been spotted to six books, the latest being Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Articles Ms Viswanathan wrote over two summers as an intern at a small New Jersey newspaper are being raked over this weekend. And now there are growing doubts about the extent to which the plagiarised novel was Ms Viswanathan's work or that of a "book packaging" firm.

Last night The Independent on Sunday learnt just how this doomed project came to be launched. It is a story about just what happens when immature ambition and marketing greed hijacks a process that should have more to do with creativity than opportunism.

Ms Viswanathan's story began in Scotland, where she spent her formative years. It was here that she first started to write stories and poetry. She moved there from Madras in India at the age of three, and went to school in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Melrose. Teachers at St Mary's Preparatory School in Melrose said her writing and poetry showed potential.

At the age of 12, her family upped sticks again and headed to the US, where the young Indian girl excelled at school. By the time she was 16 and applying for Harvard, she had already written the first 100 pages of Opal Mehta. Her parents, Viswanathan Rajaman, a neurosurgeon, and Mary Sundaram, a gynaecologist, paid around £17,000 to an organisation called IvyWise to help her with her Harvard application.

Katherine Cohen, the company's founder, insisted that Ms Viswanathan include the fact that she was writing a novel on her CV. After reading the embryonic draft, Ms Cohen passed it on to her own literary agent at William Morris. The agent, Suzanne Gluck, promptly put Ms Viswanathan in touch with a company specialising in the "packaging" of young adult fiction, Alloy Entertainment.

Alloy, in turn, did not wait for Ms Viswanathan to finish writing the book but rather worked with her to come up with the concept for Opal Mehta, helped her "craft" the first few chapters and gave her an unknown amount of guidance on the rest.

The two-book deal with Little, Brown was signed by Alloy as well as Ms Viswanathan, on the basis of a story outline alone. The allegation, which Alloy and Little, Brown vehemently deny, is that Ms Viswanathan was little more than the marketable pretty face for a book put together by a team of unnamed writers.

The plot of Ms Viswanathan's first - and possibly last - novel, where a young girl attempts to change her lifestyle in order to get into Harvard, closely mirrored Ms Viswanathan's own efforts to win a place at the Ivy League institution.

Unfortunately for her, it also mirrored all too closely the plot of a book by Megan McCafferty called Sloppy Firsts.

A reader of Opal Mehta first raised the alarm on 11 April. As well as the plot similarities, she noticed parts of dialogue and description that appeared to match passages in Ms McCafferty's book.

When Ms McCafferty's publisher, Random House, probed further they discovered a dozen passages that appeared to have been lifted almost word-for-word from Sloppy Firsts and its follow-up, Second Helpings. After the Harvard campus newspaper, The Crimson, broke the story, the number of apparent borrowings shot up to more than 20 and finally nearer 40.

Subsequently, allegations of further rip-offs surfaced: bits that seemed taken from a Sophie Kinsella novel, a couple of lines that closely echoed passages in Rushdie's children's classic Haroun and the Sea of Stories, similarities to Meg Cabot's novel - later turned into a film - The Princess Diaries, yet more similarities with another coming-of-age novel about an Indian-American in New Jersey, Tanuja Desai Hidier's Born Confused.

At first, Little, Brown tried to contain the scandal, saying it would withdraw the book, make revisions, and put it back on sale. But as the sheer scale of the alleged plagiarism became apparent, Little, Brown decided it might be simpler to throw in the towel, which it duly did in the middle of last week.

As the row has escalated both the publisher and the "book packaging" firm have attempted to distance themselves from the plagiarism claims, laying all the responsibility on Ms Viswanathan's young shoulders.

The 19-year-old has endured a torrid fortnight. When the allegations first emerged, she said she was "upset to learn" about the similarities. She claimed that Ms McCafferty's books had had a big influence on her and that she "wasn't aware of how much I may have internalised Ms McCafferty's words".

As the allegations have piled up, Ms Viswanathan has gone to ground. She is now back on campus at Harvard and is said to be devastated by the scandal. "It is a small school," said one Harvard student, "so lots of us know her. No one is pleased about this." Reaction on campus has been mixed, though. Before the scandal even broke, fellow students had taken exception to the teenager with the $500,000 book deal. According to the Harvard Crimson, "Viswanathan became the target of an inspired private butchering".

Barbara Jaeger, assistant managing editor at The Record newspaper in Bergen County, New Jersey, where Ms Viswanathan was an intern during the summers of 2003 and 2004, said staff remembered her as "a lovely young woman with a lot of potential as a writer".

"What was so surprising was the amount of talent she had. She showed maturity beyond her years. She learned from people. When you told her something she would remember it and not make the same mistake again," said Ms Jaeger. "If she did plagiarise, it is a serious offence, but I'm not sure. Knowing her it is hard for me to believe that she could do this. There was never any indication when she was here. We all have to remember she is still 19 years old. It would be hard for someone more mature to go through this."

IvyWise's Ms Cohen also leapt to Ms Viswanathan's defence. When Ms Cohen first met her she was an "extremely bright and extraordinarily gifted 16-year old with a talent for writing". "Although I had no part in the actual writing of her book, I don't believe that the Kaavya I know would ever wantonly or willingly copy someone else's work with the deliberate intent to deceive others," she said.

But there has been no shortage of commentators and literary types pontificating about the perils of plagiarism. Salman Rushdie has also waded into the row. He told India's CNN-IBN that Ms Viswanathan should have known better: "I am sorry that this young girl, pushed by the needs of a publicity machine and, no doubt, by her own ambition, should have fallen into this trap so early in her career. I hope she can recover from it. I know when I write a book it's my name on the book so I stand or fall by what I sign. And so must she."

Ms Viswanathan has certainly fallen. As well as losing her book deal and her credibility as a writer, a film rights agreement with Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks company has also been ripped up.

Before she signed her book deal, Ms Viswanathan hoped to to become an investment banker after graduating from Harvard. The likelihood of a superstar author ditching her career to spend her days sitting at a desk number-crunching are slim. But as her literary career lies in tatters, Kaavya Viswanathan may have to turn to Plan A after all.

Additional research by Megan Waitkoff

Fact or fiction? Five other accusations of copying

EMILY DAVIES'S unpublished memoir How to Wear Black: Adventures on Fashion's Front Line was dropped this year after allegations that she had taken recollections from other journalists and passed them off as her own.

JAMES FREY'S gritty memoir A Million Little Pieces became a best-seller after an appearance on Oprah Winfrey's TV show. But it was revealed he had invented some of the tales, and it was claimed he was also guilty of plagiarism.

BEST-SELLING author Dan Brown won a High Court battle last month after Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh claimed he "lifted the whole architecture" for The Da Vinci Code out of their book, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.

GRAHAM SWIFT was falsely accused of taking the storyline and style for his novel Last Orders from William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Swift rebutted the allegation. "My novel... does not stand comparison to it," he said.

DMITRI YEMETS'S novel, Tanya Grotter and Her Magic Double Bass, was said to be based on the Harry Potter books by J K Rowling. Mr Yemets said it was a "parody", but a Dutch court blocked publication in the West.