I first met Sonny Mehta about a decade ago. We were among a group of Indian Americans being feted by a diaspora newspaper, India Abroad.
He was a legend in publishing, the head of storied publisher Alfred A. Knopf, a position he held for three decades until his death this week.
We chatted at the event. I was at NPR at the time and involved in a lot of book coverage along with being an avid reader. We were both Indian immigrants . . . how could we not have met before? “Let’s get together when you are next in New York,” he said.
We had a lovely long lunch. We bonded over books, of course. The things we liked, the things that were overrated. We also talked about London, where he first made his mark in the publishing world and where I grew up. He went to Cambridge University, so had I.
He asked me why I read so much, when I had to read so much for work, too. I told him I would go a little crazy if I didn’t read books for pleasure. Truth is, he was the same. We shared a guilty pleasure in our love of crime novels.
This globe-trotting Indian son of diplomats, who had moved so often as a child, planted some deep publishing roots in London at Paladin and Pan Books and then created Picador, which published serious paperback books. Germaine Greer, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie were among the writers he worked with then.
He was handpicked as only the third leader of Alfred A. Knopf. A foreigner in a foreign land, and a brown man in a predominantly white industry.
There was some wariness of this interloper in the highest firmament of the literary establishment. He came from a paperback imprint, maybe he was going to take Knopf down-market?
But through sheer force of his intellect, will and determination, he left his doubters in the dust.
He was a man of impeccable taste yet also possessed of keen commercial instincts. Yes, Knopf is home to Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners and literary giants such as Robert Caro, Toni Morrison, Kazuo Ishiguro, Cormac McCarthy. But he also published exciting new writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jhumpa Lahiri and Tommy Orange.
Sonny also understood the cultural import of satisfying high/low tastes. This was his genius and a reflection of the omnivorous reader that he was.
His publishing house gave us “Jurassic Park” and “The Cartel.” Thanks to his breadth, we got one of the most well-received sports memoirs in a generation from tennis great Andre Agassi. He was early to the idea that graphic storytelling was a legitimate literary form. He also had the vision to publish “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” and so began our love affair with the whole genre of “Scandi-noir.”
“Fifty Shades of Grey” – among the best-selling books of the past decade – was also published by Mehta. People might have looked down on it, but it was such a massive hit that everyone at the company got a Fifty Shades bonus that year.
Sonny’s job wasn’t just to pick great books. It was to make sure that the public knew about those books. He cared about cover art, marketing wasn’t a dirty word, the book should be a desirable object as well as a great read. He wanted to create buzz around his books.
Sonny was also the kind of person who empathized with many of us from the diaspora, and he seemed to understand that we also faced some of the same challenges that he had experienced in his career. He could sense a little of what we might be feeling, being the “only one” of your kind in an environment or industry that might not have been welcoming. For those of us who didn’t follow a professional path our Indian parents might have chosen for us, he “got it.”
When our favorite authors pass, we think of them with fondness and a sense of what is lost. Does it seem strange to remember a publisher and editor this way? It doesn’t to me. It is thanks to Sonny Mehta that so many of the writers and books that we love and enjoy and share and cherish have come to be.