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Monday, May 29, 2006

The Birth And Demise of Opal Mehta

Whenever you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

On April 22nd 2004 the New York Sun reported – “The agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh of the William Morris Agency, told the Franklin Hills, N.J.-born Ms. Viswanathan that Little Brown & Company, one of the oldest and most prestigious American publishers - now part of the Time Warner Group - agreed to a two-book deal with the teenager.” Kaavya Viswanathan, who was just 17 years old at the time, could not believe the news, she was ecstatic. To add to the contract was the amount she was reportedly getting paid - $500,000 for a two-book contract.
While taking a full course load at Harvard, Viswanathan finished writing "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed Got Wild and Got a Life" during her freshman year. Her manuscript was written at the Lamont Library in Harvard. She was under intense pressure to churn out at least 50 pages a day and eventually “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life” was completed.
Why did she pick the name Opal? Viswanathan laughs and says that she was always amused with her mother’s friends name Ruby. So she picked another semi precious stone’s name for her protagonist.
Even though onlookers see many similarities between Opal and Viswanathan, she has consistently denied any similarities between her and her protagonist. She has disagreed that “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life” is even semi autobiographical in nature.
What does she like best about her book? “I like Opal, I like her because she is so neurotic, out-there and so crazy. But you cannot help feeling bad for her. What she does is with the best of intentions and always manages to mess it up, I think that is true of a lot of people.”
Dreamworks optioned the movie rights to Viswanathan’s book, “I would really like a cameo in the movie,” she said smiling. She hoped to be able to look at the screenplay and make sure it conformed to her book and the original story and plot.
Plagiarism Scandal Emerges
Almost exactly a year after she had signed the contract with Little Brown, calamity struck. On Saturday April 22nd, David Zhou and Paras Bhayani were at work at the Harvard Crimson, performing their routine tasks when their editor passed on to them an anonymous tip that the Harvard Crimson, a student run daily, had received. This tip was about a Harvard student and a teenage writer whose book carried several passages that were similar to those in another young adult author, Megan McCafferty’s works “Sloppy Firsts” and “Second Helpings”. David Zhou, with Paras Bhayani’s help set about discovering the similarities in the two writers works and published a story the same evening elaborating the similarities and alleged plagiarism.
The next morning the national and international media had seen this story and started reporting on this as well. By Sunday this was a national scandal. The life of a 19-year-old teenager had gone from being a celebrity to a plagiarist. “A Harvard student had been found in a compromising position, and less than 24 hours later, a frisson of sadistic glee was creeping up the Internet's electronic backbone,” said the Harvard Independent.
Over the next few days plagiarism accusations kept increasing. First it was 14 similarities to McCafferty’s novels, then it was 29, and then it was 40. Allegations were aplenty. Almost to the point where the media had started scratching the bottom of the pot to produce more juicy news Similarities were found between Viswanathan’s book and Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories and, Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused and Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries. The New York Times also reported similarities between Viswanathan’s book and Sophie Kinsella’s “Can You Keep a Secret?”
Initially Viswanathan denied allegations and tried to stay away from it all. Eventually she apologized in her interview to Katie Couric on the Today show, her first after the plagiarism allegations - “When I was writing, I genuinely believed each word was my own, The last thing that I ever wanted to do was cause any distress to Megan McCafferty. ... I’ve been unable to contact her and all I want to do is tell her how profoundly sorry I am for this entire situation When I sat down to write my novel, my only intention was to tell the story of Opal. I was so surprised and horrified when I found these similarities, when I heard about them over this weekend. I just hope she believes I would never, ever intentionally lift her words. The last thing I ever wanted to do was upset her.”
In her interview with Katie Couric, Viswanathan said that she will be rewriting her book and get rid of any similarities. She also said that would include Megan McCafferty’s name in her acknowledgement. Megan McCafferty and her publishers were not impressed with Viswanathan’s apology. Variety reported that, “Thursday, lawyers from Little, Brown and Crown parent company Random House were working to negotiate a solution that would head off a lawsuit.” Soon after Little, Brown decided to pull the book off the shelves.
Variety in an article titled “D'Works kisses off 'Opal' - Scandal dulls 'Wild' novel” reported, “For DreamWorks, the scandal arrived just after the studio received a first draft of a screenplay by Kara Holden.” Dreamworks eventually pulled the plug on the project as well.
This was the end of Opal Mehta.

By Visi Tilak

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