- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 22, 2006

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.

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 Miss Viswanathan and screamed: “She’s the one who wrote that book.”

With her face as bright as her book’s fuchsia-colored binding, Miss 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.

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 A’s in high school but gets rejected by 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 Miss Viswanathan: Indian heritage, New Jersey upbringing, Harvard and both her father and Opal’s dad 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, Miss Viswanathan schedules media interviews between exams. (“I’m stuck reading Shelley for this stupid midterm, which is killing me,” she says.)

Miss Viswanathan tucks a stray lock of her inky-black hair behind an ear and flashes a smile that shows off her high cheekbones, 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,” Miss 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, Miss 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,” Mr. Ghosh says. “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.”

Born in Madras, India, Miss Viswanathan and her family immigrated to Scotland when she was 3. They moved again when she was 12 and landed in Millburn, 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, Miss 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. Summers during high school, Miss Viswanathan took fiction and poetry writing classes at Johns Hopkins University for fun. She showed a few short stories to her high school college counselor when she was applying to Harvard. The counselor, also an author, was impressed and showed the work to her agent.

The stories Miss Viswanathan shared with 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 Miss 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,” Miss Muchnick says. “She did.”

But it wasn’t just the teenager’s composure and professionalism that caught the publisher’s attention.

“This book is great, the idea is great, and her voice is great,” Miss Muchnick says. “She has tremendous talent.”

Miss Viswanathan spent whatever “free time” she had freshman year 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,” she says.

She looks away, and thinks about her noon midterm.

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

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