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The life of Sonny Mehta — the Fred Astaire of editing

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Sonny Mehta, who died on December 30 at the age of 77, headed legendary American publishing house Alfred A. Knopf for over three decades and published several Nobel literature laureates, Pulitzer Prize, Booker Prize and National Book Award winners, as well as hugely popular authors from Michael Crichton to Jackie Collins.

The life of Sonny Mehta — the Fred Astaire of editing
When he used to visit New York as a London-based publisher in the Seventies and Eighties, Sonny Mehta would often be asked whether he was related to Zubin Mehta, the conductor, or Ved Mehta, the New Yorker writer. “No,” he would reply, “I’m the other Mehta, the untalented one.”
Such tongue-in-cheek self-effacement was typical of Ajai Singh Mehta, to give him his full name, who died on December 30 at the age of 77. He headed legendary American publishing house Alfred A. Knopf for over three decades, publishing several Nobel literature laureates, Pulitzer Prize, Booker Prize and National Book Award winners, as well as hugely popular authors from Michael Crichton to Jackie Collins. In Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton, he is described as “a man of taste, integrity, deep loyalty to his authors.”
His wife, Gita Mehta, sister of Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik, is known in her own right as a director of documentaries for UK, European and US channels, for being an NBC correspondent from Bangladesh in 1971, and for Karma Cola, her wry 1980 book on “marketing the mystic East”.
Mehta was the son of career diplomat Amrik Singh Mehta, who represented India at the United Nations office in Geneva, and later in Damascus, Bucharest and Vienna, among other locations. He thus had a peripatetic childhood, studying at Sanawar School, India, and Sevenoaks School, the UK, from where he went to Cambridge for degrees in History and English Literature.
An ability to forge personal bonds 
He made his mark in the world of London publishing when he co-founded Paladin, which brought out The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer, his former Cambridge friend. He also relaunched the Picador imprint, which published several writers who went on to have glittering literary careers, among them Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, and Graham Swift.
In 1987, he moved to New York to join Knopf, being recommended to the owners by the man he replaced, Robert Gottlieb, who was leaving to edit the New Yorker. “It had to be Sonny Mehta,” Gottlieb later wrote, “who not only had the crucial passion for books of quality, and the knowledge of how to publish them, but who had something I lacked— a significant presence in the world of international publishing.”
At Knopf, the soft-spoken and frequently taciturn Mehta overcame cultural barriers with a well-honed literary instinct, an ability to forge personal bonds with writers, and a skill for marketing. As Gita Mehta once recalled, “When Sonny published Love in the Time of Cholera here, he said: I'm not going to mention that Marquez got a Nobel Prize so that people are frightened. I'm just going to sell it as a great, great love story.” The way he himself put it was: “A publishing house generates its own vitality…by showing what they’re publishing. Too many people have bitten the dust because they’ve delivered an ideological statement and then not delivered the goods.”
He devoted the same attention and care to not just prizewinning volumes by Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy, but also those such as Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy and EL James’s Fifty Shades series. He soon was seen as one of the most influential publishers in the world, receiving the 2015 Person of the Year Award from Publishers Weekly and, more recently, the Maxwell E. Perkins Award which honours “the work of an editor, publisher, or agent who over the course of his or her career has discovered, nurtured and championed writers of fiction in the United States.”
Belief and optimism
“The biggest kick,” he once said in an interview with the New York Times, “is reading something new and exciting and then getting other people to share your enthusiasm. Beyond all the cant and hypocrisy in publishing, that's what it's all about.” Authors were quick to sense his belief and optimism. Haruki Murakami, of their first meeting in 1991, said, “He had a quiet way about him, a special style of his own, and I knew this was someone I could trust, and work with for a long time to come.” John Banville commented, “he loves books, their content, their design, the heft of them in the hand,” and Anne Tyler, more pithily, referred to him as “the Fred Astaire of editing”.
Speaking to Dave Eggers for a Vanity Fair profile a few years ago, Mehta remarked: “On a good day, I am still convinced I have the best job in the world.” It’s a job and an industry that his skills, and his delight in discovering great manuscripts, have immeasurably benefited from.
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.
Read his columns here.
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