Browser Interviews: Stella Zawistowski


Baiqu: Welcome to the Browser Interviews, today I am sitting down with Stella Zawistowski, who is one of the fastest crossword solvers in America. Her speed record for a Sunday New York Times puzzle is four minutes and 33 seconds. These days she's making cryptic crosswords for the New Yorker and The Browser. Stella wants you to know why cryptics are the best.

Welcome Stella to The Browser.

Stella: Thank you. I do know want people to know why cryptics are the best.

Baiqu: It's so wonderful to have you here, and before we start, can we just talk about how aside from cryptics you're also doing a million other things, including a full-time job and a very interesting hobby. Would you mind sharing with everyone what it is that you do?

Stella: Sure, I mean I have a full-time job in advertising, and I also really love the gym. I love CrossFit, I love lifting heavy things. You know (flexes biceps).

Baiqu: Yes! Can I ask you what you can lift or is that too personal?

Stella: Oh, it's not too personal. I mean, it's on my Twitter profile. So my personal record for the deadlift for example, which is when the weights are on the floor and you pick it up as you stand up, is 325lbs (145KG).

With gyms closed during the pandemic, I'm slowly getting back to that. I'm not at that level anymore but I can definitely still pick up quite a lot of weight off the floor. My best squat is 265lbs (120KG), and my best bench press is 160lbs (72KG), which is a little bit more than I weigh. I'm very proud of that because not many women can bench more than what they weigh.

Baiqu: No, definitely. I think that's super impressive, combined with this insane record of solving the Sunday New York Times puzzle.

Stella: I think I'm the only person in the world, man or woman, who can say both of those things: that they've solved in New York Times crossword in under five minutes, and lift 325 pounds.

Baiqu: As a fellow woman, can I just say that is so awesome.

Ok, if you're ready, let's dive into your recommendations.

Stella: Sure.

How to get into solving cryptic puzzles

Baiqu: What would you recommend if someone wanted to know more about cryptics, what should they pick up or where should they start?

Stella: So before I even answered that question, I think I should tell your viewers what is a cryptic. People in the UK, the Commonwealth countries, and India are very familiar with this puzzle type, but it hasn't caught on in the United States as much and I really liked it to. In a cryptic crossword, the clues have two halves. There's a wordplay half and a definition half. You don't know which half is which, and you have to figure out where the dividing line is between them.

So an example of a cryptic clue that came out recently is: raises a broke actress, and in parentheses next to it is four comma three. And what that means is, the answer will be of the form of four letters followed by three letters. In this case, the first half of the clue is the wordplay, because "raises a broke," we're telling you that you're going to break the letters in "raises a." You're going to anagram them and if you take the letters in "raises a" and anagram them into a four and a three letter word, you get Issa Rae, who is an actress. So the answer is Issa Rae, who is the star of Insecure, and Awkward Black Girl, and I think that clue actually appeared in one of my puzzles for The Browser.

So getting to my recommendations, I would recommend that you follow me on Twitter @Stellaphone, because I tweet a cryptic clue every day under the hashtag #crypticclueaday, and then on Fridays I explain all of the clues to the previous week under hashtag #explanationFriday. Other people have started using the #crypticclueaday hashtag as well, so that you'll find other clues to practice with.

It can be intimidating to solve your first puzzle because there's not a whole lot of good documentation out there on what are the rules of cryptics. A lot of people have told me that following me and using that hashtag and solving the clues, just one clue every day.  And if you feel ready for a puzzle, this is shameless self-promotion, but the ones on The Browser I think are not only very good, but designed to be on the easier side. They're also American puzzles, because there are some differences between the way Americans handle cryptics and the way the British do. So I would not recommend, for example, going to the Financial Times or the Times of London if you are an American and trying to solve a British cryptic. Like, I can't even do it because there are so many cultural references. You know, like cricket abbreviations and British military review, you're just not going to know that stuff. So don't do that to yourself. Start with an easy American made puzzle

Baiqu: Preferably made by Stella, and preferably on The Browser.

Stella: Exactly.

Like I was talking to a friend recently who told me "you sound like you're just chasing the next drug and the next high." And I'm like, yeah, I am.

I don't want to scare people off  because it's just a different type of thinking, it's lateral thinking. It's about the fun of thinking it through, and at the end, it's so satisfying. You get that little dopamine hit from getting a clue, and there's really nothing else in my life that compares to that. I mean, what it has done for me, especially as I started making cryptics, is now I look at the world and I look at words very differently. Every time I'm just out and about in Brooklyn, if I see the name of a restaurant, I will immediately start thinking, can I split that into two words? Can I rearrange it to make another word? What can I do with this word? And just like everywhere I go, I see cryptic clues everywhere.


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How to sound smart in a conversation

Baiqu: And you know, that leads nicely into our next question, which is what would you recommend if you want to come across as being smart in the conversation?

Stella: So I had trouble with this question because I never do anything with the express purpose of being smart in a conversation. It's just, you know, I'm a nerd. If I tell people I solve cryptic crosswords because regular crosswords are not hard enough for me, that I think probably makes me come across as smart. So yeah, if you try a cryptic you can say "oh the New York Times puzzle just wasn't enough for me, so I tried cryptics. Check this out."

Baiqu: I love that, yeah, just sneak it into the conversation.

The weightlifting, the cryptics, and having this full time job, obviously opens up different facets of your life that you can develop consistently. And in our previous conversation we had this talk how you can balance all of these things. Can you share a little bit about how you've had the time to dedicate years to both your physical health, the puzzle competitions, as well as having the job, and I guess being married, there's that aspect of your personal life too?

Stella: So, I mean, at least with the crosswords it helps to be fast because I solve something like 45 puzzles a week. But it doesn't take me that long, because if each one of them is taking anywhere between two and eight minutes, it's not that much total time.

But I have learned, especially with COVID and the lockdowns, I think I did realise that I was a bit over-scheduled. I was running around from place to place. My motto used to be, if you want something done, ask a busy person. Because I am hyper-organised, I'm really good at time management and figuring out: this is how long is this going to take me, and therefore I can cram these three things into one day. But I have had to learn, or there was enforced relaxation when everything shut down, and I started to realise that building in time to relax is a good thing.

I used to do on top of all of this, sing in a choir that performs in Carnegie Hall, and I just today got back to the membership coordinator saying I'm not going to be rejoining for the next year now that singing together in a group is possible again. Because much as I enjoyed it, I love playing with words even more, and something's got to give. If I do choir, and CrossFit, and word puzzles, either I would give up some of my sanity by trying to cram that all in, or we'd have to give up one of the other two things. And there's just no question to me in order of importance of things in my life that words come first, then working out, and then everything else.

Best online purchase

Baiqu: Speaking of efficiency, I guess, especially during the pandemic where we've relied quite heavily on the efficiency of getting things to us when we can't go outside. My next question is, out of all the things you've purchased online or through Amazon during the pandemic, what is the one thing that you'd recommend?

Stella: So I would say at the beginning of the pandemic, I was such an avid reader and I thought, you know what we're locked down, so of course I'm going to read a lot. Now I know I'm not the only person who ran into this problem where there was something about being under this stressful situation all the time, that I found myself not being able to read anything but articles. And I thought what happened to me? I used to go through a book every week or two, and now all of a sudden it's taking me two months to read like a 400 page book. Like what the hell?

So what I discovered, and what got me out of that was reading young adult fiction. I had never read the Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. Absolutely fantastic. I just couldn't stop reading them, and what helped me was just giving myself permission to say it's okay that I'm reading a book that is written for 13 year olds, because that's where my head space is at right now. So I would highly recommend His Dark Materials if you haven't read that already. Obviously I'm very late to the party on that one, but that was wonderful.

I also really loved Red White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, which is a fiction about the first son of the United States who falls in love with basically a thinly veiled gay version of prince Harry of the UK, and there are international incidents over it. It's just wonderful. Both of those books are written for people much younger than I am, but it's just really good fiction writing. And who cares who it's written for?

Baiqu: No, I completely agree. And honestly, I have no shame about reading young adult fiction. I think I've read His Dark Materials about three times now, and it's incredibly profound actually. I think even as an adult, you get something out of it.

For Browser Interviews, I spoke to Sylvia Bishop, who's a children's book writer, and we of talked about similar things. You know where you can go back to children's books and they can evoke something in you as an adult, because there are these profundities that are universal across the board. So, yeah, that's really cool that you got into that during the pandemic.

Stella: It is really deep. I mean, spoiler alert, but at the end when they realise they can't be together, the maturity of these children as they make that decision it is crazy.

Cure to an existential crisis

Baiqu: It is really heartbreaking isn't it?

Ok so next question, what would you recommend as the best cure to an existential crisis? And I'm just going to tag on a tiny personal note, do you ever face these sort of crises yourself?

Stella: I wouldn't say I face them often, but there is one that I can tell you about. Like the last big one I had started around my 39th birthday. Gee, guess why? Just the whole year, I felt like I was in a funk, thinking oh God I'm going to turn 40, my life's going to be over. And I apologise to all the viewers who are over 40 listening to this and going the yeah, shut up you. But honestly, I feel like lifting is what got me out of it. Especially once the day actually came, and I was on vacation with my niece and my husband, we met some friends in San Francisco, which is where we were, and had a really nice time.

And for a couple of months before that, I had been training extra hard in the in the power lifts, as opposed to some of the other things that you do in CrossFit. Then a month after I turned 40, we had a final test of our best lifts in the squat, the press, and the dead lift, and that is where I hit my best squat ever and my best deadlift ever. That really helped me out of the existential crisis because I thought like, wow, I'm 40, but it doesn't necessarily mean that all of my lifting and my best days are behind me. You know I'm now 43, and a few weeks ago - I've been training for this for a while - I did a chin up with 50lb(22KG) strapped to my waist. That's more than a third of my body weight added to me, and I was so stoked and happy with that.

And again, just knowing that now I'm well past 40, and there's still good stuff to come, physically and mentally. I mean, yes, my eyes are going, things are you know starting to hurt and creak a little more, but it's not over.

One book, one hobby, one daily habit recommendation

Baiqu: Yeah I love that. And I think I had something similar right before I turned 30, and it's so cool that you reached these milestones after you turned 40.

I can't believe we already reaching the last question, but can I ask you to recommend one book, one hobby, and one daily habit.

Stella: I think I've already said each of these three things at some point previously in the interview. But yeah, one book is, His Dark Materials. I will take them as a single book rather than three separate ones, because it is one story.

Uh, one hobby, cryptic crosswords, of course. Just because it's such a different way of thinking. I think everybody should at least give it a try. It's fun in such a different way than any other word puzzle you'll ever try.

And one daily habit is go follow me on Twitter and try my cryptic clues. I also started doing a cryptic clue contest once a week. So I'll pick one of my words from the previous week and invite anyone who wants to, to reply with a clue of their own. And again, people have really enjoyed it as a way to try their hand at writing cryptic clues themselves, without feeling like they need to commit to doing it every single day. And I always also pick words that have multiple ways in, so that everybody feels like they can try something different and have something that's different from all the other people who have posted an answer.

Baiqu: Yeah, I love that. And you were telling me that there's this cryptic or crossword puzzle Twitter- sphere. It was really interesting to hear you talk about how you're close to the people within this circle, how you guys go to competitions together, but also help each other out, and work together.

Stella: Yeah so long before social media was a thing, I knew a lot of the other people in the serious competitive cross-worlds. Both because I'm one of the top competitors, and also because once you start making puzzles, you get in touch with the other people who make puzzles.

Twitter out of all of the social media platforms has been where the crossword community gets together. One thing that the pandemic has shown us is just how much of an appetite there is for this sort of thing.

The American crossword puzzle tournament is the most famous and the most well-known crossword competition, there are smaller local ones these days, but that's the one that's been around since 1978 and it's the one that the documentary movie Word Play was made about. At its best, or at its highest attendance, I think there were like a little over 700 attendees. In 2020, the tournament is usually in March, and it unfortunately had to be canceled because things were starting to shut down. And very quickly, a group of younger constructors who are much savvier with tech than I am, organised an online tournament. And that I think had about two thousand registrants, so almost three times the size of the largest in-person tournament. There have been several online tournaments since then. Again, most of them have attendance in at least a thousand range, and so it's very clear that there are other people who want to do this and can't do it in person.

In fact, some of the competitors online were from the UK, there was somebody from Japan doing it. I'm like, oh my God, you are up really late doing this, good for you. I miss competing in person, I want that to come back, but I hope that there will still be a place for larger online competitions as well.

Baiqu: Well, thank you so much Stella, for opening up this entire world of cryptics and crossword puzzles, and it's amazing to see your passion for this as well. I hope after this interview a lot more people will try their hand at cryptics. Thank you for your time and thank you for sitting down with me today.

Stella: That was a great time, thank you. I call myself the cryptic evangelist, so I hope that I evangelise some people and that there are a few converts.

Stella Zawistowski's Twitter https://twitter.com/stellaphone

Stella Zawistowski's puzzles https://toughasnails.net/

The Browser's crossword and crypic puzzles https://thebrowser.com/crossword/

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston


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