Meeting Mr. Crossword

Taking a clue from Brendan Emmett Quigley, wordsmith and puzzle constructor extraordinaire

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / August 9, 2011

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I always thought that only smart people could solve crossword puzzles - people like my mother, or Bill Clinton, who got into Yale Law School and later taught constitutional law. But about four years ago, a colleague led me through a Monday New York Times crossword. She explained the code: If the clue is abbreviated, the answer will be, too; plural clues yield plural answers, and so on. The Monday puzzle is the easy, notorious crossword starter drug.

So I am hooked. Not super-nerd hooked, but I enjoy the puzzles a lot, and when my wife helps me, I can even navigate past Friday and Saturday, the Scylla and Charybdis of the weekly puzzle odyssey. By chance, I noticed that Brendan Emmett Quigley, one of the country’s most successful and prolific crossword constructors, lives in Cambridge. Would he meet me?

Yes, as long as we got together before his wife gave birth to their first child, expected momentarily. We made it! During two-plus hours luxuriating in the August sun at the Asgard pub, I learned more about crossword puzzles than I will ever need to know. Our conversation went something like this:

AB: Are you expecting a boy or a girl?

BEQ: A girl. I have already created a backlog of puzzles for my website, sort of “In case of birth, break glass, extract puzzles’’ so I’ll still be publishing after she’s born.

AB: I have to tell you that I dreamed of meeting puzzlemakers Henry Rathvon and Emily Cox, who work for the Globe magazine. I love their style and wanted to write an article about them. They turned me down.

BEQ: Henry writes plays in iambic pentameter, and she’s an avid climber. They do their own thing. They’re the best writers of cryptic puzzles in America.

AB: Those are the impossible-to-solve British thingies, right?

BEQ: Correct. The Nation publishes one here in the US.

[Break for small talk. I praise his semi-legendary Sunday puzzle devoted entirely to sports reporter Peter King’s dream - thus fulfilled - of being mentioned in the Times crossword. We also discussed a famous puzzle, published the Monday before the 1996 election, in which “BOBDOLE’’ and “CLINTON’’ were possible solutions. “That came about as close to the Holy Grail of crosswords as possible,’’ Quigley said. Long pause. “Would you like to know what the Holy Grail of crosswords is?’’ Long pause. He explained. It’s complicated.]

AB: So how do the economics work for you? For instance, you give away two puzzles each week on your website.

BEQ: I was in a band for a few years, trying to make it, attempting to sell songs off our website, and then one day Radiohead releases a whole album, “In Rainbows,’’ for free! On the Internet! That was seismic. They were saying, “Here, just take it. We’ll find a way to monetize this later.’’

I’m never going to charge for puzzles. It’s a crazy amount of work, but I have 9,000 regular users on the website. People leave tips there, the site generates custom work - I’m working on three custom puzzles right now - and I can sell books and puzzle packs there.

I’m coming at this from the band perspective. When we charged for everything, nobody had any idea who we were. There’s a method in this madness of giving stuff away for free.

AB: You know why I live in groveling envy of Herald columnist Margery Eagan, don’t you?

BEQ: No. Should I?

AB: Because she was the answer in a Friday Wall Street Journal puzzle!

BEQ: What!? Margery Eagan! Get the heck out of here. Wait - does her name have a funky spelling?

AB: Yes, it’s E-a-g-a-n.

BEQ: That explains it. They probably found it on Google.

[Break for small talk. Quigley explained why he loves the word “jejune’’ - “it just looks like a wrong word; it’s crazy, I would never use it in conversation’’ - and talks about personalities we both admire, such as Rex Parker, (the self-proclaimed “king of CrossWorld’’), Elizabeth Gorski, and the men he calls the “Three Jesuses’’ of crosswords: Patrick Berry, Mike Shenk and Frank Longo. (“They can do no wrong and they perform miracles.’’)

Quigley observes that this would be a good time to work the phrase “satan sandwich’’ in to a puzzle, and surprises me by saying that Times crossword editor Will Shortz accepts puzzle submissions by mail, not electronically.

As our talk wound down, I started griping about one of his most recent puzzles, skill level “medium.’’]

AB: What kind of clue is this? “A Tribe Called Quest’s DJ ___ Shaheed Muhammad’’? Who’s ever heard of Tribe Called Quest? And who knows their DJ’s name?

BEQ: They’re huge. They’re the subject of a major documentary.

AB: Yeah, on the Sundance Channel.

BEQ: Look, I realize there are middle-aged people that are solving these puzzles, and I try to throw them some bones. But if we don’t get young kids into crosswords, they could become just an arcane pastime. I have to pave the way for all the new solvers and the new constructors, too.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is

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