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Infamous teen author was principled student

Kaavya Viswanathan was wealthy, ambitious and accomplished
/ Source: The Associated Press

Well before she became famous as the Harvard student caught lifting material from other authors, Kaavya Viswanathan was the kind of person others noticed.

Because she was so smart.

The Harvard University sophomore with the six-figure book deal honed her love of writing at the Bergen County Academies, a rigorous New Jersey magnet high school where even top students can be intimidated.

“She was such a good student — everyone knew of Kaavya,” said Kayleigh Wettstein, 18, now a senior in the school’s Science & Technology Academy.

Viswanathan became even better known in recent weeks amid a cascade of plagiarism allegations against her novel, “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life.” Publisher Little, Brown and Company last week canceled the reported $500,000-deal with the teen.

For the Indian-born Viswanathan, 19, the downfall is an abrupt reversal in a young life marked by accomplishments that still earn her admiration from former teachers at a school where only one in four applicants is admitted.

At the Bergen County Academies — where the average SAT score is 1,322, or 30 percent higher than the state average — Viswanathan attended the school’s premier Academy for the Advancement of Science & Technology.

She edited the school’s online magazine and earned numerous writing awards. After showing a story to a counselor at a private college-prep firm, a meeting with a publisher was arranged and the strikingly pretty young woman emerged with a two-book contract. Sporting a 4.16 grade point average and 1,560 on the SATs, the high-school valedictorian headed to Harvard, where she is completing her sophomore year.

‘Unconscious imitation’The novel about a driven, high-achieving Indian-American teen trying to get into Harvard was published in March. Within a month, student newspaper The Harvard Crimson pointed out similarities between dozens of passages of Viswanathan’s novel and two works by Megan McCafferty, “Sloppy Firsts” and “Second Helpings.”

Viswanathan quickly apologized for what she said was an unconscious imitation of books she read and admired years earlier, and Little, Brown planned to revise future editions. But within days readers pointed out similarities between “Opal Mehta” and the works of several other writers, including Meg Cabot’s “The Princess Diaries,” prompting the publisher to cancel the contract and withdraw the book from sale.

Neither Viswanathan nor her parents returned several phone calls seeking comment. But those who knew her as a high school student say plagiarism is at odds with the girl they remember.

“I saw an extremely bright and extraordinarily gifted 16-year-old with a talent for writing,” said Katherine Cohen, for two years Viswanathan’s counselor at Manhattan-based IvyWise, where college prep sessions cost parents tens of thousands of dollars. Author of “Rock Hard Apps: How to Write the Killer College Application,” it was Cohen who introduced the student to a book agent.

“I don’t believe the Kaavya I know would ever wantonly or willingly copy someone else’s work with the deliberate intent to deceive others,” Cohen said.

Born in Madras, India, Viswanathan and her family immigrated to Scotland when she was 3. They moved to New Jersey when she was 12. Her neurosurgeon father and her obstetrician mother now live on a carefully tailored cul-de-sac of five sprawling homes in Franklin Lakes, one of the wealthiest towns in New Jersey.

In an environment where resume-conscious students often schedule electives into every free period, including lunch, observers said Viswanathan did not seem overly pressured.

Classmate Katelyn Purpuro, just completing her sophomore year at Cornell University, said she only knew Viswanathan in passing from a senior-year statistics class, but was aware of the other girl’s ambition to go to Harvard, and that she was taking extra Advanced Placement classes to prepare. Purpuro described a driven student, but not a student stressed out by her obligations.

“Kaavya was an overachiever, but she was doing well at it,” Purpuro said. “She was not carefree, but calm. She was always on top of things.”

Viswanathan was featured in a 2004 Chronicle of Higher Education article detailing how even successful students are “schmoozing” with admissions officials to make themselves more memorable. Viswanathan was described as having visited nine exclusive colleges, following up with phone calls and monthly e-mails to admissions officers to underscore her interest.

“I think a lot of applying to college is about strategy,” Viswanathan told the magazine. “When they read my application, maybe they’ll remember me.”