Adrienne Raphel on Crosswords

Uri: I'm delighted to be here today with Adrienne Raphel, the author of Thinking Inside the Box, a brilliant book about crosswords. Adrienne, you’ve been enjoying crosswords since your youth – can you tell us a little bit about how you came to them?

Getting Into Crosswords

Adrienne: I think I should start off by just laying out that I am not a super crossword expert. I’m no Dan Feyer. I’m not Stella Zawistowski. I bow to those people: it’s amazing to meet them all. It’s an incredible community of people.

I’ve been a word enthusiast since before I can remember. I don’t really have any memory of a time when I couldn’t read, which is probably because I have a slightly older brother who I was very competitive with and he read fairly early; and just because my family likes competition and games. That was our love language, I guess.

But, crosswords in particular: I would say the vast majority of people I spoke to when I was writing this book, when you mentioned the word “crossword,” it clicked into some story about their family. And it’s some story either about childhood with their family, or some story about how that made them reconnect with an elderly member or younger member of their family.

When I was in high school -- true to my family’s form and true competitive style -- we would make copies of the Monday crossword in the New York Times, which was the easiest New York Times day crossword. My dad would send us to different corners of the house, and somebody would yell “Go!”, and we would all try to start the Monday crossword on our own – in a frenzy  – and I would try to at least beat my brother.

But also I think crosswords got me hooked at that age when I was really just starting to explore what can you do with language and words. That is both the same as writing  – putting them together – and it’s really different too. These words are creating all these networks of meaning, associations in your brain, and the crossword seemed like a really cool little lab where that was happening in a different kind of space.

I’m a poet, that’s also what I do. And all of these things, just a random potpourri of things, are all deeply interwoven together into this crossword.

Poems And Maths And Crosswords

Uri: That’s wonderful. And you’ve written about the connection between poems and crosswords, right? And also about musicals – can you tell us about the connection between all of these forms of word manipulation? I don’t know what to call it -- word puzzling, mathematical-literary overlaps...

Adrienne: I like all of these things! Thank goodness I’m not the only person. It would be a lot less fun if I was the first one.

The kernel for the book though was when I realized - I knew about Will Shortz, I knew about certain figures, but I didn’t realize... oh my gosh, there’s a whole community around this, and it's an amazing community. It's a community that has existed for a century.

It’s interesting, because when we started researching about crosswords and thinking about who the people are who would be really interested in crosswords - interested in solving them, constructing them, editing them - I thought, oh, yeah, that’s definitely people who love to read. Super English major-y, creative writing, poetry language types.

Actually when you go into who are the kind of biggest crossword wonks - I will just call them,  in the most reverent way! - it is this mathematic-literary thing you’re talking about. It’s the math-music brain, especially more recently. But I think it appeals to that sweet spot: did you do really well on both the math and English sections of the SATs? So you’re probably a crossword wonk, right?

I find something that’s very exciting about crosswords is that they’re made of the stuff of words, the stuff of literature; and yet the inherent skills that they both draw on and flex or exercise are mathematical connections, constructing a crossword grid.

I found fewer intense crossword aficionados among the poetry community than I have among the more engineering, technological, mathematics community. To be sure, let’s just say crosswords are everywhere. Cruciverbalists are everywhere.

Uri: We’re all around you. You can’t escape.

Adrienne: I can’t escape them!

Uri: That’s interesting about poetry though... I’m surprised! I never thought of the connection between poetry and crosswords, but once you made it, I thought it made sense, that there is something puzzle-like in certain kinds of poems as well.

Adrienne: So I think an American-style crossword would often click with the process of how you put together a poem, and how you allow yourself to read a poem.

If you’re talking, or reading a line of prose or a paragraph in non-fiction, usually when you’re moving from sentence to sentence you know the track you’re going on, right? And a poem, if you’re moving from line to line, you might be: oh, yeah, this is symbolic in this line, and the next line we’re more concrete, and then the next line actually we’re both...

In an American style crossword, some clues might be super literal: I just need to know that fact. And then some clues give you a hint that they are asking you to do some sort of word play, because there’s a question mark or it’s just weirdly worded. That’s a wordplay clue, but you don’t actually know the kind of association you’re meant to make until you figure out the context of it - and that’s like a poem. Sometimes you don’t know what world you’re in until you have more of the context.

Then cryptic-style clues are so great, because they tell you exactly how to read the clue within the clue itself  – you shouldn’t actually have to bring in external knowledge in order to read the thing. The cryptic teaches you how to read itself, if you know how to do it.

I think that to me seems like a big connection between cryptic and poems. When you’re reading a poem, it can be puzzling or difficult but it shouldn’t feel like this thing that’s blocking you out of it. It shouldn’t be like, "No, no, no, I don’t want you to solve me". It's like,"Actually, I have everything in me for you." Does that make sense?

Uri: Yeah! It’s completely self-contained, and in a different way from straight crosswords. It creates that feeling of flow, and I think that’s what we’re really chasing in some ways - full immersion in something.

Adrienne: Yeah, exactly.

The Cryptic Crossword

Uri: For anyone who might not know what a cryptic is, could you quickly introduce us to the cryptic side of things?

Adrienne: Totally, yeah. American style crosswords and British (or cryptic) crosswords, the main difference formally between them is that British cryptic clue always has two layers to it.

There’s the wordplay layer: what kind of word play is this? Are we meant to read it backwards? Are we meant to anagram it? Are we meant to split it and read something in the middle? And there’s always some sort of code -- even if it’s really bonkers -- there’s always some sort of code in the clue that tells you, OK, this is the kind of thing you’re supposed to do with it. Then there’s always the definition, the second layer.

And also a cryptic grid: it looks slightly different from an American-style grid. The American style grid has to have 180-degree symmetry. It has to be interlocked. Every letter has to cross with another letter. That’s not true in British style cryptic.

Uri: Yeah! In your book, I really liked when you talked about making grids as a high school student, as a community service project, and just not knowing how grids were meant to look. There’s a few things I’ve noticed that real crossword people just immediately jump on and one of them is non-symmetric grids, which you just don’t think about until you enter this world. You’re like -- oh, is that a rule?

Adrienne: Yeah, there’s a Twitter account called like “Not A Crossword,” which is great. They’re so funny.

Uri: Yeah. We once accidentally got an illustration made with a non-legal grid in it and then had to report ourselves to Not A Crossword. Pointless, I know, I know, we're suitably ashamed.

Ok, we've talked enough about failed grid constructions. There is something fascinating but strange – and mostly a little alienating – about cryptics in the way that they are completely inscrutable until you know the rules. But there is always a logic to it, no matter how mad it is and if you know the logic then it works.

But because they are deliberately written to be parsed as a regular sentence, the first time you look at one you just think, “Am I dumb? I don’t get this. What’s going on? How do I not know any of these answers?”. And I find that frustrating and alienating, and it makes it harder to get into. I think it is a difficult thing to start with unless someone walks you through it.

Adrienne: That seems to me exactly right. You know, I just said that the cryptic answer has everything you need inside it, but there is this learning curve too. How do you even speak the language to know what you’re starting to look for, right?

I pulled this one cryptic clue in my book, and it’s one that I think about a lot – a good example of how a cryptic clue works, and how you get from the thing to the answer. So the clue is pretty girl in crimson rose: 'pretty girl' is a belle, and then 'in crimson' - the 'in' means it’s going to be encasing on either side, and crimson is 'red.' It’s R-E on one side, D on the other side. So it’s “re-belle-d”. Then rose means an uprising: rebelled.

Uri: That is brilliant. I would say representative, in that every single word did not mean what I thought it was going to mean.

Adrienne: Exactly.

Uri: You've got this amazing clue in your book, pool noodles, I thought that was the most brilliant two words. How can it be two words long, and neither of them is what I thought?

Adrienne:  It’s so good. The whole thing is perfect: pool noodles is mind meld! The misdirection on that! And yeah, you have to redo 'pool' as a verb, to pool as in to share resources, and then you have to redo 'noodle' as a slang term for the brain, so instead of this long Styrofoam object you use in the swimming pool you have to put your brains together, to mind meld, what a great answer too.

I find that for me when I have cryptic clues in one column and the answer in the other column, I feel really successful if I can bridge. That’s the stage I’m at. So maybe that’s a good place for people to start if they don’t know much.

Uri: I tend to think of cryptics as a kind of metaphor for the British social class system: it’s a series of cues that if you know them, you know them, but no one will ever teach you. If you don’t get them, the whole thing is illegible, and if you do get them, the whole thing is just delightful.

Adrienne: Very seriously I love that - crosswords as life, and reading into the British class system.

Authors have been doing this for ages, like PG Wodehouse, right? He uses crosswords, and certainly cryptics, in these novels from the '30s and '40s as a marker of class.

He kind of makes fun of it too. Wooster can’t do a crossword, he just says "oh, I’m just going to fill in whatever", and then the butler Jeeves has to come around, and then Wooster appropriates the butler’s response as his own. He's like, "Look at me, I solved the crossword"; the butler would just stand there. So I think it’s totally a class thing.

Uri: At this point I'm legally obliged to mention our new introductory sequence for people who want to learn about cryptics. I think too many introductions to cryptics feel like reading a manual – "if you can get through this manual, then you'll be able to have fun later" – so we wanted to make something that lets you jump in from the beginning and solve clues and have a good time.

Adrienne: That’s amazing, I can’t wait for it! This is great.

Crossword Addiction

Uri: You mentioned in the book about warnings against crosswords and their addictiveness when they first came out, maybe we can talk a little about that?

Adrienne: Yeah, this is one of my favorite crossword fun facts. So crosswords were invented in 1913 out of desperation. An editor of the New York World's "Fun" section was told, “We want a bigger Christmas edition of the Fun Section. Add some more games.”

This editor was like, “Well, damn. I can put a grid in..." and it’s sort of a happy marriage of technology and creativity. Printing blank grids was becoming more doable I guess, and you had seen things that were 'fill in the words in a grid', but his innovation was adding clues in and adding the blank grid right on to the page with them. He called it “Fun’s Word Cross Puzzle”.

They became really popular, but they really took off in the '20s. In 1924, the first crossword collection came out in book form.

About the same time, they crossed the pond to Britain. At first people in Britain were like, oh, this stupid American craze. How dumb. Then a couple of months later, everybody in England is doing crosswords, and then very quickly it morphs into cryptic crosswords in England.

But this is to say in the '20s, there’s this great moment of crossword craze, crossword fandom. There’s a musical called “Puzzles of 1925” that features a song set in a crossword asylum -- they have to go to a sanitorium because they did the crosswords.

Because people were so into doing crosswords, they needed reference books and dictionaries to look up the facts, because you can’t keep all the facts in your head. Also, especially at that time, they had a lot of really weird crossword-words to make the grids work. Still do! But apparently there was a run on reference books in the library.

Librarians got really miffed about this. There’s op-eds and letters to newspapers from librarians saying "these dangerous games are taking our readers away from very serious things, messing up our dictionaries - this is terrible!"

You see it over and over. You see it with video games in the '80s and '90s. Actually you saw it before crosswords with novels where people were like, "Oh my god, people are reading novels..." Serious works of literature! Then the crossword comes in and they’re like, "Please read novels. Stop doing the crosswords!" - and then you have other games that come along, then it's "Please do crosswords and don't play video games." Now I'm sure people are like, "Please play video games. Stop...." I don’t know what, whatever the kids are doing.

Uri: I always have mixed feelings about this because when people say "oh, isn’t it funny how people used to think novels were really addictive?", and I’m like "novels are really addictive?!?!" When I'm reading a good novel I can’t think about anything else.

Adrienne: Exactly, I agree with you. They’re really addictive. They’re also built to be addictive.

Uri: So the same with crosswords obviously. I mean these people were not wrong, it is incredibly addictive and all-consuming. You speak about several crossword addicts in your book and I found these vignettes very funny....

Adrienne: Yeah! It’s so amazing to me to go to a crossword tournament. Well, first of all, to go to a crossword tournament; and then second of all, to go to meet people at the tournament where what you do is do crosswords and in the middle of the tournament puzzles, they’re doing all their crosswords. It’s the most endearing thing.

The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

Uri: What is it like at the ACPT? What is the crossword competition world circuit like?

Adrienne: So crosswords and competition have also been tied up since their beginning. In the '20s, during this big first fad period of the crosswords, there were crossword competitions and there were intercollegiate competitions.

There was a woman who became really famous as a crossword solver, and she became very notorious as the ingénue of the crossword scene and a really great solver. Like - "oh my god, she’s a woman!" That was a big thing! There’s a really funny early New Yorkers short profile of her where it really truly is: look at this, brains and beauty in one young woman!

New Yorker writer Anna Shechtman, who used to write a lot of crosswords for them, is now writing I think a crossword memoir. A lot of early profiling of her was similarly: "look at this brains and beauty in a young crossword-er." And this is a hundred years later.

Anyway that’s the sidebar, but crossword competitions have been around for a while. The crossword competition scene has understandably changed in the past two years. So we timed this book to be released in March 2020 because every year in March or April, the ACPT - the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament - happens in Stamford, Connecticut. It has been happening for 30 odd years every spring in a big hotel ballroom - or many hotel ballrooms, now. It's grown!

This tournament was started by Will Shortz, in the late '70s. It's been going and growing steadily – it started with 40, 50 people and it got up into the hundreds. And then in 2006, there was a documentary made about the tournament called “Word Play”, which is a huge sleeper hit and actually really made the tournament grow a ton. And by a ton, I mean like adding a few more hundred people... But it feels big, for something that had basically zero marketing presence. You do get 700 people in a room together - like the Super Bowl of crosswords.

So this is the biggest tournament, that happened once every year. It had always been in person. The last couple of years, I think the crossword tournament competition has grown a fair bit. The crossword culture's growing a bit online, and there are more tournaments now.

One thing that I think is really special about the ACPT: it has been around for 30 years and it’s a really low-key vibe – it is not glam-slick. It feels very homegrown still, in a really nice way. It feels like sort of a family – I mean it's really big, 700, 800 people, and it has that feel. People coming together once a year for this thing that binds them all together.

But I think the Word Play documentary also did help introduce new generations of people to crosswords, and now there’s a really exploding diversity of people who both construct and solve crosswords. The crossword whiteness has been problematic for a long time and that has been changing – it had started changing when I was writing the book. It has been changing even more since it came out.

Uri: On another note: I want to say that your book has the most prolific and amazing collection of asides of any book I’ve ever read. Any topic that could possibly come up, you’ll briefly add oh, by the way..., and I would think "there's no way this is going to connect back to crosswords," but it always did, it was spectacular.

Adrienne: Thank you! That is also a true delight of writing about crosswords. Thank goodness for my lovely editor who was really into the asides!

Uri: Was that just your writing style? Were you like, OK, I want this book to feel like a crossword? Because it just felt like you had something on every possible topic... You would start a chapter with something and I was like, there’s no way this relates. How is she going to bring this back into crosswords? I don’t get it! But you always did it!

Adrienne: I’m so glad that it read that way. Thank you. I’m really glad this read to you like the experience of doing the crossword - where you’re like, “Where does this go?”. If I have any intention with this book, that was it.

The writing process for this book has been... well, it started as an idea to do a magazine profile of Will Shortz. That's where the book originates, and then my editor reached out to me. I was in the middle of writing this, but he didn’t know that. He found some other stuff I had written. He was like, “Do you have an idea for a nonfiction book?”

I’d been writing this magazine piece, and it never actually went to fruition. I realised: this is bigger, this is not just a profile of Will Shortz, it's a profile of this whole crossword community.

At the same time I was in a PhD program. I had to write a dissertation. So I had this whole other cockamamie project going that I ended up scrapping, as I got more and more into writing this crossword book. So, there’s a whole dissertation version of this book that exists. It has lots and lots and lots and lots of involved close readings about crossword literature and crossword poetry and a lot of stuff that... let’s just say there’s a 350-page dissertation that exists on the cutting room floor for good reason.

Bless editors! Because an editor was like, OK, the way that you can make this a fun read is: structure it chronologically, and braid the history with these fun facts. Then you get the experience of narrative flow moving through, but also the experience of the tangents, like when you’re reading a crossword.

Future Projects

Uri: That’s brilliant. Can I ask if you have been working on anything new?

Adrienne: Yeah. So I have a book of poetry coming up this fall. That’s called Our Dark Academia. I’m collaborating with the illustrator making a few paper dolls for the book.

That's coming out in the fall. It's so brand new!

I’m working on a book proposal about department stores, as the secret structure of the imagination - my grandparents ran a small department store in Atlantic City in the mid-50s, so I’m thinking about them as a case history of Jewish immigrant families who own and run the small department store, not an uncommon phenomenon.

But then the idea for the book currently is, that’s a braid through, and then the book is structured as a department store directory where each chapter will take you through a different way of thinking about the department store. And also how this phenomenon begin. There’s lots of articles about the death of the department store but I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

Uri: Wow, well, a lot of exciting stuff in the works for Adrienne-fans – Adrienne, where can we find you online?

Adrienne: You can find Thinking Inside The Box: Adventures with Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can’t Live Without Them at hopefully any independent, local bookstore. You can also find me online at I’m on Twitter and Instagram - sometimes!

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