Knopf publisher and editor-in-chief Sonny Mehta, who introduced the works of Stieg Larsson to American readers, talks about the phenomenal success of the series.
How did you first hear about the Millennium trilogy?
I heard about the books at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2007. At that time, they were already creating quite a stir in Europe. I bought American rights soon after returning to New York.
What was it about the books that made you want to acquire rights for Knopf?
I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in one sitting. I thought it was remarkable for both its suspense and its portrait of society. Lisbeth Salander, “the girl,” is one of the most dynamic and original characters I’ve encountered in years. I believe we had only synopses of the second and third books, but one could tell from the ambition of Dragon Tattoo that the trilogy was going to be an impressive work in its entirety.
The publication of the trilogy was a unique situation—the author was dead, the books had to be translated from their original Swedish, and they were published at different times in different languages all around the world. What was it like working with such conditions?
It’s certainly an unusual situation, but not unprecedented. We had a similar experience when we published Suite Française a few years ago. The author, Irène Némirovsky, died during World War II, and her daughter had only just discovered and decided to publish the manuscript, which was in French. So the novel wasn’t as contemporary as Stieg Larsson’s, but it was another one of those rare works in translation—particularly without a living author—that found a wide audience in the United States and around the world. It’s tragic to realize that these authors didn’t get to experience the success of their own work, but it can also be reassuring to know that publishing their books may help their legacy to endure for generations. (Read our review of Suite Française)
Were you involved with re-titling the books for an English-speaking audience? (The first book’s original title was Men Who Hate Women.)
The British editor, Christopher MacLehose, from whom we bought the books, and who commissioned the English translation, came up with the title. I wasn’t involved in that process, but I knew we wanted the American edition to use this title rather than Men Who Hate Women. There was some concern that the original title might, in English, sound like a self-help book. Also, the title The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo emphasizes the character of “the girl,” Salander, who in my opinion is one of the main strengths of the trilogy.
Why do you think the books became so successful here?
I think it was a combination of factors. We had a terrific series of jackets, the look of which has now become iconic. We did advance reader’s editions, which went out to a wide group of fellow writers who were very supportive, [and] there was a large marketing campaign. But mainly it’s the strength of the books themselves. I think they really touched a chord with American readers.
Is it true that Larsson left a partial manuscript for book four when he died?
I’ve also heard those rumors, but I don’t have any concrete information about a fourth book. I understand that as long as Stieg Larsson’s estate is in dispute, it probably won’t be possible to get hold of the manuscript, if it even exists.
Read our reviews of all three books in the Millennium Trilogy
Photo of Sonny Mehta © Michael Lionstar.