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January 11 2020
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It was a balmy evening, in early fall, and the night was drawing on. As a fledgling writer with barely a book to my name, I’d been invited up to the apartment that Sonny Mehta and his writer wife, Gita, shared on Park Avenue. Sonny had been quiet through much of the evening, while Gita filled their exquisite flat—all framed miniatures and books—with color and warmth. Then, as seemed to happen with even the lowliest of us intruders, they invited me out with them for dinner, Sonny apparently unperturbed by the fact that he had three manuscripts to read before the morning.

Now, as we sauntered back toward their flat, sometime after 11 p.m., Sonny stopped outside the Plaza with a question in his eyes. Then he pressed some banknotes into the hands of the man in a horse-drawn carriage and invited me to step up. For 30 minutes I found myself across from the coolest and most glamorous couple I’d ever seen as we jangled through Central Park like revelers in some Audrey Hepburn movie. By the time we disembarked, and Sonny prepared to walk back to his manuscripts, this newcomer to the literary world was wondering whether the writer’s life was something from The Thousand and One Nights.

It wasn’t, as Sonny knew better than anyone. Yet somehow the man who transformed paperback publishing with his Picador imprint in London in the 1970s, and then revolutionized all publishing with his 32 years heading Alfred A. Knopf in New York, contrived to make it seem as if writers were magical carpet weavers, watched over by a kind of djinn: himself. He spoke of books as if they were rubies, yet made them fly into readers’ hands. He took works of high literary intent—Remains of the Day, The English Patient, All the Pretty Horses—and found a place for them on every other bedside table. He published Stieg Larsson and Fifty Shades of Grey, aware that a dragon tattoo (or a kinky romance) could fund a hundred serious and otherwise overlooked debuts. He weathered every upheaval as the publishing industry crashed into an iceberg and hundreds scattered across the decks, and calmly returned home every evening to offer more starlit memories to his authors and then devour three new manuscripts before dawn.

Sonny spoke of books as if they were rubies, yet made them fly into readers’ hands.

His was the most exquisite taste of any reader I’ve known. He knew every last work on his many lists, and would write to me to commend a book from a debut writer about failing to get a job in the Congo, rave about some neglected piece of reportage on Sri Lanka that almost nobody had heard of. (“Really good,” he pronounced, and in a man of few words that “really” resounded for months.) Soon after I began going on book tours, he went out of his way to set up readings for me with Graham Swift and Rohinton Mistry because he knew I’d be a better person for knowing them.

Sonny and Gita Mehta in New York City, 1990.

Part of his special mystique, for those of us lucky enough to be in Sonny’s fold, was that even when years went by without a meeting, we always felt him very close, our secret cheerleader and protector. He had the rare gift of being beautifully self-contained and open all at once. And an even rarer talent for working constantly and selflessly below the radar even as he radiated impeccable charisma.

Cover to Cover

I’d grown up on Sonny’s Picador innovations without ever knowing his name. For students in England in the 1970s, they were the first books we’d buy simply because they felt as cool as the latest from Roxy Music. Suddenly, amidst the stodgy paperbacks lining the shelves at Blackwell’s appeared cutting-edge visions from Angela Carter, Michael Herr, Hunter S. Thompson, even John Livingston Lowes (a scholar from the 1920s whom Sonny rescued from the library). I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who, during my last term at university, neglected all preparation for my final exams because I was caught up in The Serial, the unimprovable satire on flaky California that Sonny had the inspired idea of bringing out in the form of a spiral notebook.

When, in 1987, I got ready to publish my own first book, at Knopf, I heard that the new boss, Sonny Mehta, was silent, mysterious, and something of a bad boy. Not many heads of publishing houses had the air of being personally acquainted with Keith Richards as well as with F. R. Leavis.

But the man I met proved courteous, reserved, and somehow deeply welcoming in the same breath. He felt less like an Indian than any Indian I’d met, though I couldn’t say he was exactly English, either; living outside categories and expectations, he was the perfect midwife for the dawning school of fiction appearing from non-English writers to some degree formed in England (Kazuo Ishiguro, Michael Ondaatje, Salman Rushdie, Caryl Phillips). One of the first times I met him, he said almost nothing the entire evening: every now and then, the phone rang—it was Alberto Vitale, Sonny’s ideal boss and teammate—and slowly I realized that I was witness to another radical Sonny gamble: Simon & Schuster had just dropped Bret Easton Ellis’s unsparing American Psycho only three months before publication, and now Sonny and Alberto were deciding to bring it out as a Vintage paperback original, where it would ultimately be recognized as a merciless classic.

He had the rare gift of being beautifully self-contained and open all at once.

The Vintage Contemporaries series would do for the U.S. what Picador books did for the U.K.: offer a new sense of what was canonical, announced through sleek covers and a sense of up-to-the-nanosecond knowing. Deeper than that, it suggested schools of writing no one had thought to identify yet, taking in not just Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis but Ann Beattie, Joy Williams, Raymond Carver. As I came to know Sonny, I saw how his gift for being able to find common ground with almost everyone—now he was making notes on James Ellroy’s latest, now returning from Katharine Hepburn’s house after working all day with her on her memoirs—at once reflected and deepened his rare ability to fall for any kind of writing, high or low, quiet or revolutionary. It wasn’t hard to see all he’d gained from growing up as the son of a diplomat: the politesse, the tact, the unforced internationalism, and, most profoundly, the ability to convey real humanity and care while saying very little.

I’d wander into his office—he’d look up, sharp and alert, flash that brilliant smile—and he’d offer three words about my latest book, words so well chosen I’d want them inscribed upon my gravestone; over hors d’oeuvres at Vong, I’d mutter something glib, and he’d quietly remind me that, no, Corelli’s Mandolin was not like Henry Fielding at all. I never heard him say a bad word about any book, though when I began to gush about the beauty of the world, he’d smile and say, in some form, “Come off it!”

Diplomat’s Son

One year he gave away as Christmas presents a first novel brought out by a rival publisher. His assistant told me that taxi drivers recently arrived from the Punjab would cold-call his office—there weren’t many Indians in New York in the 80s—and he’d invite them up for a chat. Indeed, the extent of his thoughtfulness and wisdom was one of the many things it took some of us a while to see, behind the pressed jeans and black turtleneck, the bottle of Scotch on the desk amidst the cigarette butts. His kindness was as private as other people’s vices are. But when a colleague had a breakdown, the broken man confided to me, it was Sonny who took pains to protect him, ensuring he had all the space and care he needed to try to come back to himself.

Of course his books were always the last word in physical beauty. (He admired Leonard Cohen, he told me, because Cohen, in preparing a book for Sonny, revealed such a keen sense of design.) Of course they won Nobels and earned millions of dollars. As one publishing head after another fell, Sonny was made head of more and more imprints, until he was responsible for 550 titles a year. Yet it was his sense of undistracted watchfulness that silenced me. Editors are as overburdened as anyone in our accelerating age, but Sonny simply sat in his corner office and gave hundreds of us, I suspect, the sense that he was following our every word and thinking of fresh ways to bring us to a larger audience.

The Vintage Contemporaries series would do for the U.S. what Picador did for the U.K.: offer a new sense of what was canonical.

The year of his death I completed a new book, but, after months of attempts, my editor in New York, my editor in London, and I could not come up with a perfect subtitle. As if he didn’t have enough to do, Sonny picked up this tiny work, guaranteed never to be a best-seller, and read through it. The subtitle on its cover, at once market-savvy and poetic—“Season of Fire and Farewells”—came (of course) from him.

The week he died, I registered an even greater gift. Thirty years earlier, shortly before my first work was reissued as a paperback, I was sent a cover image—a flat depiction of a camel grazing in some sand against a plain white background. Hardly arresting, but I was too young to complain. A few weeks later, however, a new cover image arrived—electric blue and green, with torches blazing behind the eyes of a Balinese dancer in a trance, under ragged lettering in orange. Something no browser could overlook, and, 30 years on, something as fresh as next week.

Only a few days ago, after his death, I learned: this was Sonny’s doing. From horse-drawn carriage to psychedelic colors, and back again: it could only be Sonny, making art out of life and gold out of lead. A whole world—of elegance and love of books, of soulful reserve and depth—died when he did.

Pico Iyer is a columnist for AIR MAIL

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