Enter Sandman: An Interview with Sonny Mehta

Chris Schluep on March 14, 2018

sandman.jpgOne of the bigger publishing events of the past couple decades was the launch of the Millennium series. In 2005, Knopf published Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which was an enormous success and sparked the popularity of Scandinavian thrillers in this country.

Knopf later published Jo Nesbo, whose Harry Hole novels added to the Nordic fervor. And now they are bringing out the novels of Lars Kepler, whose book The Sandman was just reviewed by Janet Maslin of The New York Times.

Sonny Mehta is the editor-in-chief of Knopf and chairman of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, and he has played a primary role in bringing all of these books to the American market. We caught up with Mr. Mehta to discuss Larsson, Nesbo, and now, Lars Kepler.

Chris Schluep: You published Larssen, Jo Nesbo, and now Lars Kepler. Maybe you can answer this question for me: Why do Scandinavian thrillers resonate so much with people?

Sonny Mehta: Well, I think the Stieg Larssen resonated because it was so fucking good, actually. They weren’t just simple crime suspense. They had an ambition to them. They were saying things about society, as much as anything else. They had a richness to them, don’t you think?


And the extraordinary thing is it wasn’t like Scandinavian fiction had a long track record of success in this country. There was Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and almost nothing else had made any kind of impact as far as American readership was concerned. And then suddenly this guy appeared out of nowhere.

And of course it had the extraordinary central character, Lizbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo.  She was unrepentant. She was determined. She was a heroine for our time, it turns out. 

Did you have any idea that it would be as big as it got? What were your expectations for it? 

I just knew that I had read something very strong, very powerful.

And I knew all the strikes against it: including the fact that it was written by a Swedish writer, that it was a first novel effectively and then, as it transpired, that it was written by an author who was not going to be available to promote the book in any way whatsoever, because he died.

So that wasn’t going to be helpful, but we did think we had a damn good book, and that was the thing. That’s why we did a reader’s edition: we wanted to get it into peoples’ hands. And I think that’s what happened. It sort of alerted readers to the fact that, you know, one knew about Simenon a generation earlier. One knew about the Swedish writer Henning Mankell. They were terrific, but they were very much European procedural novels, precinct novels, in the tradition that Ed McBain for instance had pioneered in this country. 

People started looking. And then Jo Nesbo appeared on the scene. The Snowman, which is when we picked up on Jo, is extremely powerful. It had a touch of the gothic to it. But it was really a wonderful novel about an extraordinary policeman. But I think what the Larsson trilogy did was introduce a completely different type of suspense fiction to American readers.

So it’s ambition, it’s story…

Absolutely. And very strong characters. Whether it’s Nesbo or Larsson, they do have these very strong principle characters.

And with Kepler?

Exactly the same thing. It’s the central characters. They are unusual, they’re very strong, and they carry the stories. And the stories are complicated. They’re not simple. And they don’t gloss over the dark side of the society they’re portraying. And they’re all contemporary. 

And they’re all translated. Is there a secret to getting a good translation?

I think it’s kind of key. And Neil Smith, who’s doing these, is among the leading translators of this type of fiction from Scandinavian languages. He channels them. So it doesn’t read like it’s translated. And that is the key, I think, for a really good translation: it should appear in the vernacular and in a comfortable vernacular.

Seems like the Lars Kepler books could sell like crazy.

Well, it would be wonderful if they did, because they sell like crazy almost everywhere else. The one place where apparently they’ve under performed is in the United States, and all of us are kind of determined to see whether we can’t sort of bring them to the fore over here. Because they’re good enough and they deserve to be. 

What’s the next book that’s coming? 

It’s called Stalker, and we’ve got it down for March 2019, again translated by Neil Smith. And it’s very, very exciting.

You read a lot of thrillers yourself, right?

I do, I read them for pleasure. It’s one of my guilty addictions. It’s an addiction I share with my wife, by the way, who reads at a terrific rate—but yeah, I generally have one by my bed. After I’ve finished work, after I’ve finished whatever crappy television, before I turn out the light, I set out to read about a dozen pages and two hours later I’m halfway through something.

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