Kaavya: A Reprise

Visi Tilak of The Indian American interviewed me and several others for an article in their July/August issue, and I wanted to share the Q & A with you out here on the fire escape.

What are your thoughts on the Kaavya Viswanathan incident? What do you think happened?

I have no idea what happened, but I believe her when she says that the plagiarism wasn't volitional. It's impossible to prove, I know, and the evidence against her has been clearly articulated by many people, but I'm going to stay in her corner. Besides, "innocent until proven guilty" is one of the strongest cornerstones of civil societies. One of my goals is to champion teens caught between cultures, and Kaavya is definitely one of those. I admire the way Megan McCafferty (and now Tanuja Desai Hidier) responded without condemnation towards a younger writer.

How do you think this is going to affect other upcoming young adult writers -- teen writers specifically?

Publishers will be reluctant to launch a young writer into the adult book world with as spectacular of a splash, but that's probably good. A headline-generating teen debut is not the best way to begin your career when you're thinking about sustaining it over the long haul. Christopher Paolini (Eragon, The Inheritance) seems to be sailing through success without much ado, but that's probably because he published for children and teens, not for adults. The children's book world is a safer, smaller circle to join when you're a teen writer — and not necessarily less lucrative these days.

Do you think packaging a writers work by a company is acceptable? Why or why not?

I'm not a story snob. Packagers help create a series of entertaining reads for people who want fixes featuring their favorite characters, like Nancy Drew, etc. The lasting impact and depth of fiction, however, has to be affected when generated quickly in committee instead of slaved over by one person. (As I am slaving over a book right now, I certainly hope I'm right.)

Did the media overexpose the case or is it relevant?

For writers, editors, and publishers, this case has been a wakeup call and a chance to reflect on copyright and the creative process. Teens have reflected on the dangers and ethics of plagiarism. Within the South Asian community, it's been healthy to scrutinize the pressure on young people to succeed. For Kaavya, though, I'm sure the international criticism has been devastating. While good may yet come to her out of this mess, I'm sure she wouldn't have applied to be a catalyst of change.

Should Kaavya Vishwanathan be allowed to write again? Why or Why not?

If we're prevented from writing because of mistakes we've made that have inflicted pain on ourselves and others, which one of us would be "allowed to write?" Once Kaavya has had a chance to heal and reflect, I would wholeheartedly encourage her to write again. The suffering endured and the lessons learned can refine her writing and inspire her to create powerful stories.

Can she ever be published again? Why or Why not?

Of course. Other writers have worn a scarlet "P" and survived to tell another tale. When you're nineteen years old, the future is full of second chances and fresh starts.