The last time I saw Sonny Mehta was October 2018. I was pregnant with my second child and was in New York for a short trip. Come and get me for a drink, he said. And so I went to the Knopf offices on Broadway to pick him up.
We walked across the street to a brasserie for a drink. Sonny didn’t usually talk much, but that day he talked and talked and talked. He had just won a lifetime achievement award and was in an introspective mood.
He talked about his early days in publishing, how hard it was for an Indian to break through the very white private school ranks of British publishing as a young graduate just out of Cambridge in the ’60s. He talked, too, a little about his childhood. The years in boarding school, with a diplomat father who was posted abroad, the itinerant childhood.
Sonny talked of SI (Samuel Irving) Newshouse of Condé Nast flying him to New York to offer him the job at Knopf after he had made a name for himself creating Pan, one of the earliest paperback imprints in UK; how hard it was for him in those early years at Knopf, with New York’s cultural elite trying to pull him down with pleased whispers of his impending sacking; how he now saw that moment as an act of terrified racism. Then he spoke of the difficult days, when Bertelsmann bought Random House from Condé Nast , leaving him wondering if he was out of a job.
A kind of magic
Sonny talked and talked and talked, in a low, slight raspy voice. I had to strain to hear it all. Legendarily silent, he had an air of appearing not to speak when he did. The words seemed to come out like from a ventriloquist’s doll.
For the first time, too, he spoke about me and what I was doing, with an emotion he rarely displayed. When I moved to Delhi at 28 to be the editor-in-chief of Random House India, I spoke to Sonny almost every day. That first year I knew no one, the work felt impossibly large and difficult, and I clung to Sonny’s voice on the other end of the phone.
So in a way he had been with me through most of my career – indeed the first time I met as a young editorial assistant in Frankfurt, he told me, go home to India. Publishing in India meant a lot to him, and he did whatever he could to nurture the young, fledgling Random House India.
I had meant to drink only a glass of wine – I was trying to be disciplined through the pregnancy. And then I thought to myself, I must keep this moment going as long as I can – and ordered a second glass, to go with his second whisky. I had a friend waiting for me for dinner and I missed meeting him at our appointed hour.
When I finally got to a cab, I called him apologetically. Sonny was speaking, I said, it was kind of magic, I couldn’t stop. An old friend of Sonny’s, he understood.
The world’s best publisher
Sonny Mehta was regarded as the world’s best publisher. What did that mean? It meant he published Michael Ondaatje, VS Naipaul, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Haruki Murakami, and Gabriel García Márquez. It also meant – and this is the great lesson he taught me – he published the Fifty Shades Of Grey trilogy, the Millennium series and Jurassic Park. He published the latter as seriously, as passionately and as imaginatively as the former.
Any reader who grew up in India from the ’50s to the ’80s got an unusual – and, I think, incredibly useful – reading life. We didn’t have access to the full range of interesting writing being published globally. What we got was a mix of classics, eternal paperback bestsellers (Agatha Christie, Joseph Heller, Sidney Sheldon, Colleen McCullough), and some of the current big books.
Voracious readers read everything – the high-minded stuff, the trashy stuff. And this kind of wide, omnivorous reading – he would ask me to send him piles of thrillers when he came for his annual visit to Delhi – shaped Sonny’s publishing.
In the west, you rarely get to do Fifty Shades alongside Kazuo Ishiguro. So, Sonny – and the Knopf he shaped – was unusual.The Sonny hallmark was outstanding design and strong marketing alongside the selection of books – yet another lesson he taught me. Whenever I hear a publisher say I care only about the books, sales and marketing don’t count, I think to myself, you’re no publisher. Great publishers love marketing and sales and all the other stuff that makes up the selling of books.
He would tell me again and again that the only way to survive, to be left alone by your bosses, to do what you want to do, was to make enough money. Making hits was what he did, and it’s why he’s famous. And alongside the hits, he published outstanding, beautiful books, many of which sit on your shelf.
We all wondered if he was ever going to retire. He’ll die on the job, said most of us. And he did, he went just the way he wanted to go. Goodbye, dear Sonny. I’ll miss you.
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