Sonny Mehta, Publishing Industry Giant, Dies At 77

Jan 1, 2020
Originally published on January 1, 2020 6:38 am
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Almost any great writer needs a great editor, a champion who understands their work and makes it better. The editor of many a great writer has died. Sonny Mehta was 77, the editor in chief of the publishing house Alfred A. Knopf, where his authors included Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and John le Carre. NPR's Rose Friedman has this appreciation.

ROSE FRIEDMAN, BYLINE: Sonny Mehta didn't like to talk about himself. In fact, in NPR's archive, the longest clip I could find of him was one in which he quoted two other people on the definition of a classic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SONNY MEHTA: I think it was Mark Twain who described it as a book which people praise and don't read. But the one I feel closest to is Clifton Fadiman's, and he said, when you read a classic, you do not see more in the book than you did before. You see more in you than there was before.

JAMES ELLROY: He was, on occasion, brilliantly articulate. But he largely left the articulation to his authors.

FRIEDMAN: James Ellroy was one of those authors. He says Mehta's strength was that he didn't just acquire books. He revelled in hammering out the details with authors.

ELLROY: Sonny got in there with me for years. I write the most complex crime books ever written, and he could talk plot points with me, chapter and verse, on and on and on.

FRIEDMAN: When Mehta published Ellroy's novel "White Jazz," the author says they discussed the syncopated style down to each sentence.

ELLROY: I could pluck "White Jazz" off my shelf right now and go, Sonny, me, Sonny, me.

FRIEDMAN: Sonny Mehta was born in New Delhi in 1942. He was the son of a diplomat and moved around the world frequently. His career in publishing began in London, but it was in New York that he became something of a legend. He published six Nobel Prize winners, celebrities, Pope John Paul II, thrillers by John le Carre and such literary authors as Jhumpa Lahiri, Joan Didion and Patti Smith.

Mehta lived through huge changes in publishing, the rise of e-books and Amazon. But author Robert Caro, a historian whose books about power and the ways it's wielded take famously long to write, says Mehta always gave him the room he needed.

ROBERT CARO: Never once did he ask me when I would deliver the manuscript, when I would be finished. He really understood what I was trying to achieve with my books, and he gave me the thing I needed most - time to try to achieve them the best I could.

FRIEDMAN: Sonny Mehta never stopped working, and James Ellroy says he never stopped looking for the next great book.

ELLROY: He had a truffle-sniffing bloodhound's instinct for books at all points in the development of a manuscript. His bloodhound snout was right down there on the page.

FRIEDMAN: Sonny Mehta, who loved a cigarette and a scotch and the opera and a good book best of all. Rose Friedman, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.