Literary apprenticeship leads to debut novel

  • Saul Lelchuk's debut novel, "Save Me From Dangerous Men," came out this spring. (Courtesy photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/16/2019 10:00:27 PM
Modified: 5/16/2019 10:00:16 PM

When readers first meet Nikki Griffin, the heroine of Save Me From Dangerous Men, the debut novel from Canaan native Saul Lelchuk, she’s working the pool table at a West Oakland bar, sizing up a man in order to take him down.

At first, she seems like a standard vigilante, an avenging angel looking out for her fellow women and striking fear into the hearts of the men who abuse them. But as the novel progresses, she becomes more complex. She owns a bookstore and is as fiercely literate as she is violent. She has a dark past that makes intimacy difficult, but still hopes to have a normal, loving relationship.

In short, she’s the kind of character a writer can build not just a book but a world around. Lelchuk, 36, is doing just that, revising a second novel centered on Nikki Griffin and her Bay Area milieu, and starting a third. The budding series is a facet of the varied career Lelchuk is crafting for himself. He’s also at work on a book of short stories, and hopes to produce a nonfiction book.

The series is “part of my plan,” he said in a phone interview from the Bay Area. “It’s not the entirety of my plan.”

A writing career seemed almost pre-ordained for Lelchuk, who’s the son of novelist Alan Lelchuk and author Barbara Kreiger, both of whom have taught at Dartmouth College for more than 30 years. Growing up in Canaan, then in Hanover, where his parents bought a condo so their children could attend Hanover High School, Saul Lelchuk and his younger brother, Daniel, a professional cellist, were surrounded by writers, including such visitors as Philip Roth and John Updike.

Lelchuk graduated from Hanover High in 2001 and majored in English at Amherst College, but it wasn’t until he studied writing in Dartmouth’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies, or MALS, program, from 2006 to 2008, that he formed his determination to be a novelist. He studied a wide range of genres, from screenwriting to journalism.

“By the time I graduated with an actual full-length novel,” he was sure that was what he wanted to do as a writer, he said.

The route to Save Me From Dangerous Men was a winding one. Lelchuk moved to California on a one-way ticket in 2009. Like many writers, he makes a living from multiple sources. In addition to writing, he runs a college counseling service that caters mainly to immigrant families sending their first-generation students into higher education. And since 2016 he has taught short story writing in the MALS program every summer.

He has a pair of manuscripts that haven’t been published. Writing them was his literary apprenticeship, he said. And an agency that rejected, but gave him valuable feedback on his first book, accepted Save Me From Dangerous Men a decade later.

Students ask him “How do you learn to write a novel?” he said. The answer he gives them, half-jokingly, is “write a novel.”

Writing his first published book began with some notes written in the wee hours. He sat up in bed at 3 a.m. and wrote down a character sketch of a woman who sold books by day and acted as a vigilante by night. Lelchuk’s plan for himself includes literary writing, but he has always read and enjoyed hard-boiled crime fiction.

“I grew up reading a lot of the greats — Cain, Chandler, Hammett,” he said. He wanted Nikki “to be a bit of a throwback” to those gritty California novelists and their tough, no-nonsense detectives.

He started to craft the novel in August 2016, on a drive back to California from the Upper Valley. He wrote the first scene at an Applebee’s in Erie, Pa., the only place open when he rolled into town. “I realized this is kind of this great way to think about this book,” he said of his road trip and the long stretch of unstructured time it furnished.

When he got home, he finished the first draft in a 100-day sprint.

In creating Nikki Griffin, Lelchuk was aware of the challenges facing a male writer developing a central female character. He had the good fortune of having three women to help him, agent Victoria Skurnick and Flatiron Books editors Amy Einhorn and Christine Kopprasch, whom he thanks in the book’s acknowledgments.

Revising the manuscript, under the eye of his agent and editors, took a year. The book came out in March.

Save Me From Dangerous Men finds Nikki immersed in the most contemporary of settings — working for an internet startup that isn’t quite what it seems. Questions of privacy and surveillance, and free speech in the face of despotism, overshadow Nikki’s own emotional environment of dark clouds occasionally pierced by sunlight.

Although Lelchuk has been working as a writer for some years, producing this book felt like a bit of a lark. “It was fun for me from Day One,” he said. Acceptance by an agent and sale to a publisher happened very quickly, in a couple of weeks, a hurry after years of waiting.

“It’s been exciting for me, because it’s something I’ve wanted my whole life,” he said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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