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Debut Author Apologizes for Similarities

She calls echoes to a 2001 young adult novel an unintended mistake.

April 26, 2006|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

When Steve Ross, publisher and senior vice president of Crown Publishers and Three Rivers Press, learned that a first-time teenage novelist might have borrowed a few passages from the works of one of his own authors, Megan McCafferty, his first instinct was to consider it "a youthful indiscretion."

After all, the alleged transgressor, Kaavya Viswanathan, a 19-year-old Harvard sophomore, was being heralded as a kind of literary prodigy, a kid with a voice who'd scored a two-book deal worth close to $500,000 while still in high school. Who'd want to squelch that?

But as Ross' staffers compared the newcomer's novel, "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life," with two of McCafferty's novels, he became alarmed and then angry when they turned up 40 passages in "Opal Mehta" that seemed borrowed or lifted directly from McCafferty's two popular young adult novels, "Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Helpings."

"This is literary identity theft," Ross said Tuesday. McCafferty, he said, "feels that something fundamental was taken from her."

Viswanathan's Boston-area phone number was disconnected, but through her publisher, Little, Brown & Co., she apologized Monday in a written statement, saying she had made an unintentional mistake.

"When I was in high school," she wrote, "I read and loved two wonderful novels by Megan McCafferty, 'Sloppy Firsts' and 'Second Helpings,' which spoke to me in a way few other books did. Recently, I was very surprised and upset to learn that there are similarities between some passages in my novel ... and passages in these books.... I sincerely apologize to Megan McCafferty and to any who feel they have been misled by these unintentional errors on my part."

Michael Pietsch, senior vice president and publisher of Little, Brown, a division of Time Warner Book Group, did not return phone calls, nor did Viswanathan's William Morris agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh. Earlier, Pietsch had expressed his support for Viswanathan, saying he was "confident that we will learn that any similarities in phrasing were unintentional." He described her as "a decent, serious and incredibly hard-working writer and student."

Late Tuesday, Pietsch issued a second statement, in which he reaffirmed his support for the young author. "She has apologized, publicly and profusely, for any difficulties that may have come from her actions," he wrote. "She will revise her novel to remove any inappropriate similarities, and we will reissue it with those changes at the earliest opportunity.

"We believe that this is an unfortunate but honest mistake, and we intend to give Ms. Viswanathan every opportunity to correct the situation. We will not reprint the novel until those changes have been made. Like Random House" -- the parent of Crown -- "we look forward to a speedy and amicable resolution of this matter, and we look forward to hearing from them."

But McCafferty's publisher may not be assuaged.

"It's worth noting here that if they were to make the revisions to the text as they have publicly promised," Ross said, "that is a process that would consume months, and during that time this original version would still be selling in the bookstores."

"Our lawyers are reviewing historical precedents" and weighing options, including the demand that "Opal Mehta," which had a first run of 100,000 copies and has been optioned by DreamWorks, be yanked from shelves, Ross said.

McCafferty was not available to comment.

Fans of McCafferty, who alerted her via her website, pointed out the similarities two weeks ago, Ross said. The charges were first reported Sunday by the Harvard Crimson student newspaper on its website.

The scandal comes just after the publication of McCafferty's third novel for young adults, "Charmed Thirds," which hit bookstores April 11, five days after "Opal Mehta" came out.

McCafferty's novels "Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Helpings" follow the ups and downs of Jessica Darling, a New Jersey teenager intent on being accepted to Columbia. "Opal Mehta" is about an Indian American girl in New Jersey who is intent on being accepted to Harvard.

In an e-mail, Crown presented 40 alleged similarities between the two texts. An example:

On Page 7 of "Sloppy Firsts," published in 2001:

Bridget is my age and lives across the street. For the first twelve years of my life, these qualifications were all I needed in a best friend. But that was before Bridget's braces came off and her boyfriend Burke got on, before Hope and I met in our seventh grade Honors classes.

On Page 14 of Viswanathan's novel:

Priscilla was my age and lived two blocks away. For the first fifteen years of my life, those were the only qualifications I needed in a best friend. We had bonded over our mutual fascination with the abacus in a playgroup for gifted kids. But that was before freshman year, when Priscilla's glasses came off, and the first in a long string of boyfriends came on.

Ross said he thought that an article in the Newark Star-Ledger on Tuesday reinforced what he called "a possible pattern of disingenuousness" by Viswanathan. According to the New Jersey newspaper, when one of its reporters asked Viswanathan last week which books had inspired her, she replied, "Nothing I read gave me the inspiration."

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