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The Coolest Cruciverbalist

None other than Will Shortz praises Norwood's Brendan Emmett Quigley for making the New York Times   crossword hip.

(Photo by Chitoze Suzuki)

''I respect very much those that create the puzzles,'' Jon Stewart says, in the documentary Wordplay, of the cruciverbalists behind the New York Times crossword puzzle. ''I don't know how they do it. Quite frankly, I don't know why they do it.''

For Brendan Emmett Quigley, explaining why isn't easy, though it's certainly not for the money (the Times recently raised its rate for producing a weekday puzzle to $200, up from $135). He thinks it's an instinctive attraction to complicated puzzles, something that started in kindergarten. ''The teacher would hand out large sheets of paper and let us draw anything,'' he remembers. ''The girls would draw unicorns, and the guys would draw tanks. For some reason, I drew mazes – real Daedalian mazes.''

Now 33, the Norwood native has evolved into a star crossword constructor known for crafting pop-culture-inspired puzzles that have ''helped bring in a new generation of solvers,'' according to Will Shortz, the editor of the Times's crossword. ''The New York Times crossword is not known for being hip,'' says Shortz. ''And to the slight extent that it is hip, it's partly due to Brendan.''

Quigley sold his first puzzle to the Times in 1996, while he was a senior at the University of New Hampshire, and he has gone on to build a following for his clever themes – like the one where he broke up the Mike Tyson quote ''I guess I'm gonna fade into Bolivian'' – and being the first to work in modern lingo and brand names, such as Quiznos and the video-game company EA Sports. ''That was a good one,'' he says, ''because no word starts with EASP, so people thought it was wrong.''

A typical Quigley puzzle has a cunning theme, such as a recent one that played off ''climate change'' by twisting the seasons in familiar phrases (''Boys of Fall,'' ''Nuclear Spring''), along with an answer or two that hits on the cultural zeitgeist (he no doubt had middle-aged solvers e-mailing their kids for help when he became the first to drop the band Arcade Fire into a puzzle).

Contrary to popular belief, Quigley, who lives in Allston, is not a fan of all word games, especially Scrabble. ''I hate the game,'' he says. ''I feel an innate pressure to whip the holy ton out of my opponent. When I make a crossword, I have tools, and I'm not limited to seven letters, and I can use brand names and proper nouns.'' He especially hates playing with his girlfriend, who is British and likes to use words she knows he's never heard of. ''I just play a defensive game,'' he says.

Like a lot of top solvers and constructors, Quigley is a serious musician. ''I think it's the ratio elements,'' he says of the connection between the two. ''It's all about what works together.'' He plays keyboard and a couple other electronic gizmos – ''It's hard to explain,'' he says – for the local band Campaign for Real Time, which won last year's WBCN Rock & Roll Rumble and recently traveled to Los Angeles to begin work on its third album. Though the band has yet to rise to the level where it can be dropped into a puzzle, Quigley is already a rock star in the crossworld. ''It's kind of embarrassing, but I'm a little bit of a cult hero,'' he says. ''It's weird to see the constructors who have been infl uenced by me. They're always the easiest ones to solve, because I'm like, 'I would have done that.' ''

''When I go to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament,'' he says of the annual event that is the centerpiece of the subculture, ''it's a bit like a family reunion crossed with a Star Trek convention. And I'm Spock.''

Even Spock got stumped, on occasion, however. There are three main elements to writing a crossword: Coming up with a theme or gimmick for the longer answers (''The hardest part,'' Quigley says, ''because so many of them have been beat into the ground''); providing the ''fill'' for the rest of the blank spaces, which includes ''spanners,'' the words that cross themed answers, and the loathed ''repeaters,'' the vowel-heavy words that constructors rely on to get them out of a consonant-jammed corner (jai alai with Yoko Ono, anyone?); and, finally, writing the clues. That, says, Quigley, is the tricky art, because sometimes, with repeaters, there really is only one way to say something. ''As much as I drink,'' he says, ''there's just no new clues for 'ale.' ''

Billy Baker is a freelance writer. E-mail him at