Author McCafferty talks shop with Brick's Lit Chicks
Plagiarized writer shares story with high school book club
BY COLLEEN LUTOLF
PHOTOSBY MIGUEL JUAREZ staff
Above, Megan McCafferty signs a copy of her book, "Charmed Thirds," for Lit Chick Jamie Bradley at the Brick branch of the Ocean County Library last week. At left, Brick Township High School students Michelle Johnson and Ashley Egleston listen intently as McCafferty talks about her craft. The group reads and discusses books that have female characters who face challenges. The "Today" show's got nothing on the Lit Chicks.The NBC morning talk show tried in vain to book "Sloppy Firsts" author Megan McCafferty after the Ocean County native's fans discovered passages from her first two books had been plagiarized and successfully published in 19-year-old Kaavya Viswanathan's recent debut novel, "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life."
The scandal made headlines around the world and soon devolved weeks later into a debate in the opinion pages of the New York Times over the merits, or lack thereof, of the young adult novel.
But the "Today" show didn't get McCafferty.
Instead, the Lit Chicks, who, months before the mid-April scandal, had booked the author for their after-school, girls-only book discussion club got to hear first-hand McCafferty's take on the story.
That's what Lit Chick Renee Winkler, 16, said she likes most about McCafferty's books.
"I think she gives real life circumstances about things that really happen to kids, not a made-up fiction of things that would never happen," she said.
Winkler, who has read all three of McCafferty's books, said she was a little surprised at how down-to-earth and approachable the author was.
"She answered all our questions and she's not an author who acts like they're too good for you," she said. "She seems open and one of us."
Although relatively tight-lipped regarding the publishing scandal in the press, McCafferty even answered questions the girls' questions about Viswanathan's publishing impropriety, which she learned about through a fan's April 11 e-mail, the same day "Charmed Thirds" was released, she said.
The e-mail's subject line read: "Flattery or a case for litigation," McCafferty said. "I thought, oh my God, somebody's suing me."
Although that wasn't the case, the reality wasn't much better, McCafferty said. Several passages in McCafferty's novel could be found verbatim in Viswanathan's book.
"I thought, 'Uh oh, this is bad," she said. "I had heard so much about her book and I had planned on reading it."
Reading the Viswanathan's book was like "recognizing your own child's face," McCafferty said. "My own words were just leaping out at me page after page after page."
The Harvard student's book has since been pulled by her publisher, Little, Brown and Co. and a second book deal has been canceled, according to published reports.
But the sting of discovering the theft of her ideas remains with McCafferty, the author said.
"It was sad and it was a shock that it could happen on such a big scale," she said. "This was a big book that was getting so much attention and publicity. It is the most surreal thing that's ever happened to me."
She said the "real story" has not yet come out.
"There was a book packager involved," she said.
Book packagers sometimes hire freelance writers to churn out manuscripts for book publishing companies or they'll have ghostwriter staffers do the job.
"Was it the book packagers who really wrote the book and plagiarized my books or was it her?" she said. "It doesn't really matter. In any case, she got herself involved in something and she wasn't up for the task. It reflects on everything that's wrong with the publishing industry."
McCafferty said she was aware of the incident two weeks before the Harvard Crimson picked up the story.
"The media broke it and I was sick to my stomach," she said. "People don't know how hard it was to have somebody else take that from me and try and profit. As someone writing my entire life, to build my career, it almost made me lose faith in the publishing industry."
McCafferty said she wouldn't want the scandal to be what Viswanathan is remembered for.
"I wouldn't want to be defined by a mistake made in such a public way," she said. "I hope she can move on from this. I hope that for both of us."
Fallout from the scandal has been equally harrowing for all teen book writers, McCafferty said.
"Books for teens have taken a huge beating in the media," she said. "These very elitist comments about 'how all books for teens are crap; so isn't this just crap stealing from crap'. My books are not crap."
In an opinion letter published in the New York Times, one writer wrote that teen books are "undemanding literature for undemanding readers," McCafferty said -an assumption McCafferty finds insulting.
"There's so much good writing for teenagers now," she said. "People make across the board judgments."
She cited and recommended to the Lit Chicks: "Feed" by M.T. Anderson and Frank Portman's "King Dork."
After the book discussion, McCafferty spent another 20 minutes autographing books and having some one-on-one Q&A with the girls, something 14-year-old Brittany Clark said she appreciated.
"I write stories and I'm trying to get published," Clark said. "I talked to [McCafferty] about trying to get my book published and she helped me a lot."
Marajke Masters, 15, said she finds McCafferty's books "amazing."
She said she enjoyed finding aspects of Jessica Darling in the author's personality.
"There are parts I noticed that are like Jessica," she said. "Basically, Jessica is like every teenage girl." But McCafferty, a former Bayville resident who now lives in Princeton, didn't come to Brick to dish - although she did; and the young women, some of them aspiring writers, in Brick Township High School's Lit Chicks club were more interested in hearing McCafferty talk about her craft than a scandal some of them hadn't even heard about.
For two hours last Wednesday, the successful writer and former magazine editor sat in the meeting room of the Brick branch of the Ocean County Library telling 20 giggling teenage girls about how being the oddball in school isn't always a bad thing - in fact, if you're a teenage high school girl, feeling like a weirdo and not knowing what you want to do with your life probably means you're on the right track.
"Being a writer is a very hermitic life," McCafferty began. "You spend a lot of time alone and in your head and it gets weird in there."
The beginning of McCafferty's tale is par for a kid who grew up on the Jersey Shore: she ran track for Central Regional High School and worked summers on the Seaside Heights boardwalk exchanging dollars for tokens at Lucky Leo's arcade before a career change to Kohr's Frozen Yogurt on Casino Pier.
Not every kid who grows up at the Jersey Shore starts writing stories at age 5; but McCafferty did.
She kept her summer boardwalk job through her years at Columbia University and that's where she returned after she graduated college - a move that did not please her parents.
"I had job offers but I turned them down," she said. "My parents gave me until the end of the summer. My graduation present was that they would pay my rent at Columbia so I could stay in my dorm and work weekends on the boardwalk."
McCafferty was holding out for a magazine internship; her determination finally paid off.
She started her career at Sassy magazine, moved to YM - both have since folded - and ended up at Cosmopolitan, where she thought she wanted to be.
"I wrote really embarrassing stories that will live forever on the Internet," she said. "As a magazine writer, I had no control over what I could write. My own creative voice started getting morphed into the voice of the magazine.
"I was writing for Cosmo which is all alliteration and sexy and just not my thing at all," she said. "I realized if I kept working for the magazine, I would lose the voice I'd developed in my journals."
So she quit.
"I realized my first real love was fiction," she said. "I'd be happier writing stories. I quit my job in 1999 and never had to go back since."
Now McCafferty, 33, spends her days inside her own head and the head of Jessica Darling , the teenage female protagonist in her three books. The latest, "Charmed Thirds," hit the stands April 11.
"I gravitate toward coming-of-age novels," she said. "I write novels I liked reading."
McCafferty's books track Jessica's progress from a 16-year-old Pineville (a hybrid town comprised of equal parts Bayville, Pine Beach and Toms River) teenager in "Sloppy Firsts" to the character's more literary pursuits in magazine publishing at Columbia University in "Charmed Thirds."
McCafferty's sophomore effort, "Second Helpings," charts Jessica's senior year at Pineville High.
McCafferty counts Judy Blume and J.D. Salinger as influences and has been described by the Wall Street Journal as "Judy Blume meets Dorothy Parker" for her unflinching look at high school life through the eyes of silver-tongued Jessica.
"I don't think there were any books that reflected what high school was like for me," McCafferty said. "Even though Jessica is not me, nothing happened to her that happened to me in the exact same way, the feelings the character experiences are the same."