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Aug 4, 2009

Interview with Merl Reagle

Merl Reagle is simply one of the best constructors in the US. He is just a natural. His puzzles often remind me of Sam Snead's sweet swing: beautiful, effortless and distinctive. Laugh-out-funny too.

It's interesting for me to watch Merl create a puzzle in the documentary "Wordplay". Even more fascinating to see Bill Clinton & Jon Stewart actually solve Merl's puzzle in the movie. I was also mesmerized by Merl's crossword discussions on Oprah. And of course, the puzzles he made for "The Simpsons"/NY Times and his own Philadelphia Inquirer syndication are just breathtaking.

Dennis has been raving about Merl's humor, playfulness & wit, and several constructors I've interviewed have also mentioned Merl as one of their favorite constructors. I asked Merl a few questions, and I was very honored and pleased that he provided me with such great answers.

Can you tell us a bit about your childhood? What inspired you to create your first crossword when you were only 6 years old?

When I was very young I was into Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys. I was an early talker and an early reader and when I was 5 or 6 I could spell the names of all the kids in my first-grade class, so I started doing the same thing with their names that I'd done with the toys -- making little connected structures out of them (on graph paper). I found out many years later that no one in my entire extended family was a "puzzle person," but I did learn that my mother's father had been a weaver by trade, so I've always wondered if I got the "word weaving" gene from him.

Crossword constructing seems to be very time-consuming and constructors are not well-compensated, when and how did you decide that you were going to make a career out of it?

I was living in Santa Monica CA in the early 1980s and was making crosswords for a number of puzzle magazines, but mainly for Dell crosswords, Games magazine, and Margaret Farrar's Simon & Schuster books. I would fly into New York each year because of the crossword tournament but I would hang out at the Dell office and at Games and even had several two-hour lunches with Margaret in her 96th Street apartment just off Central Park. I got a great education from these experiences because of their different priorities -- Dell and Margaret had a more conservative approach, and Games was trying to be more modern. At first I was not thinking of making a living at crosswords -- I was writing for TV game shows by day and working on film scripts by night and doing crosswords on the side. But a friend of mine in L.A. (who is now a TV producer) said, "you know, millions of people are trying to work in TV and movies but very few people are trying to make a career out of crosswords, and making crosswords is something you seem to have been born to do." And to be honest, there were two definite down sides to freelancing -- you had to sell all rights, and you had to make lots and lots of puzzles in order to make decent money, and making lots of puzzles was more work than fun. Plus I felt that I'd finally learned enough about the solving public to make a go of it in newspapers, which was where the vast majority of solvers were anyway. I had a lot of theme ideas that I thought were pretty funny that I'd been saving in case I ever got a regular gig -- and the chance finally came in 1985 when the San Francisco Examiner needed a puzzlemaker for a new Sunday magazine called Image. I'd lived in San Francisco for three years, knew the area well, and got the job. They paid more money per puzzle than crossword magazines could pay, I retained all rights, and I started using all of the humor-oriented puzzles I'd been saving up. Plus, I had to make only one a week, so I threw all my efforts into making that one puzzle as good as it could be. With San Francisco as a base, I was now ready to try syndication. My girlfriend at the time, Marie Haley, who is now my better half, said we should fly to different cities and newspaper conventions to try to talk editors into switching from their Sunday puzzles to mine. I never would've done this on my own -- Marie has always been the driving force behind the business -- but once we had these editors cornered I would quote some of the gags from the puzzles and they would actually crack up, so a lot of them did try us out. And all the ones who gave us a chance, kept us -- we still have all of those jobs to this day. The Hartford Courant was the first paper we syndicated to, followed by the Seattle Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Los Angeles Times in 1997 (in the Sunday magazine), the Arizona Daily Star, and many others. We added the Washington Post last year. I think we're up to 60 papers now.

What is the most unforgettable puzzle you've ever made? Why is it so special?


Actually, since I've been putting out a Sunday puzzle every week for 24 years I've made at least a couple dozen or so puzzles that turned out especially well, two of which I still get mail about -- one was called "Gridlock" and involved a pretty thick traffic jam of car names crossing in the center (it was featured on "Nightline with Ted Koppel"), and the other was called "Shades of John D. MacDonald," which involved a trail of colors winding symmetrically through the diagram, all taken from the titles of author John D. MacDonald's 21 Travis McGee detective novels (the odds of this puzzle actually working were, like, a billion to one, but it worked). However, two recent puzzles that come to mind are the two "Simpsons" puzzles I did this past November as tie-ins to the episode that featured Will Shortz and me in cameo roles. The one I did for the Times, which was actually featured in the episode, was a real challenge to make for three reasons -- 1) there was a secret 21-letter message from Homer to Lisa hidden diagonally in the grid, 2) there was another secret message from Homer, this one 144 letters long, that was spelled out by the initial letters of every clue, and 3) the overt theme of the puzzle was secretly related to the episode's plot -- when Lisa finds out that Homer bet against her in the crossword tournament, she changes her last name in protest, so the puzzle's surface theme involves punny changes to famous people's last names, like "Arnold Polymer" (clued as "Golfer who invented the all-plastic club"). There was nothing overt in the puzzle to indicate any connection to "The Simpsons" -- you had to watch the episode to realize that it contained two hidden messages. However, in the other "Simpsons" puzzle -- the one I made for my own markets and which came out on the same day -- I got to relax a little more and make an overtly "Simpsons" puzzle, hiding the names of characters in all the theme answers. But even this led to some amazing things -- 1) in order to hide Maggie's name it was truly fortuitous that the school whose students are known as "Aggies" happens to end with the letter M -- thus allowing "Maggie" to hide perfectly in "The Texas A&M Aggies." 2) It's kind of amazing that "Bart" can be clued as "Homer's imp son," which is the name "Homer Simpson" simply divided up differently. And 3) since most Sunday crosswords have 21 squares on a side, I thought -- totally on a whim -- to count the number of notes in the famous closing section of Danny Elfman's "Simpsons" theme music -- and I just about had a cow when they totaled exactly 21! So, as a counterpoint to Homer's hidden 21-letter diagonal message in the Times puzzle, which ran from the upper left to the lower right, this puzzle had 21 music notes running the other way, from the lower left to the upper right. Funny how "21" seems to crop up in the strangest places.

What is a perfect puzzle to you? How did you decide that your puzzles were going to be funny and punny?

To me a perfect puzzle is one that is extremely entertaining and extremely well-crafted, and has a seemingly perfect title, all of which I realize sounds extremely vague, so I'll try to explain. In the first letter I ever got from Margaret Farrar -- when I sent her my first puzzles in 1966 -- she said that crosswords should be "entertaining first," and since I was always kind of a funny kid, "entertaining" to me basically meant "funny." I think I found my sense of humor early on by watching Warner Bros. cartoons and "The Honeymooners." But an entertaining puzzle can take many forms -- as long as the solver has a great time solving every square inch of it, that's entertainment. By well-crafted I mean that the fill (that is, the non-theme words) contains no crosswordese and is a balance of colorful words and vocabulary, crisply and cleverly clued, and that the theme is very consistent but at the same time full of surprises. (In my case I often try to leave my best theme answer for the bottom right corner, as if it were the punchline to the whole puzzle). And this may not be a goal for others, but for me personally, the perfect puzzle should have one more thing -- a life off the page, and by that I mean that the theme, whatever it is, should be inherently interesting to any literate person with a playful turn of mind, not just a crossword fan. This allows crosswords to be talked about in a more mainstream way, not just among puzzle fans. If the puzzle is about language quirks, then it should spark great recognition on the part the solver ("Why are amateurs always rank? Why is daylight always broad?") If there are gags in the puzzle they should be real-world funny, not "crossword funny." I'll admit to having done my share of awful puns, like, "I'm not a bad duck; I'm just mallardjusted." But what I really want to do is direct, starting with "Last Orangutango in Paris." Yes, loud groaning counts as

Do you still only use pencil and paper for construction? What kind of tools do you use for reference checks?


No, I use Crossword Compiler now, simply because it's a lot faster -- no erasing! But otherwise I construct the old-fashioned way, without using a database. For cluing I use Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database a lot, but I double-check everything with Google searches. Plus, I have notebooks full of clues I've thought of and collected over the past 30 years.

Where do you get your construction inspiration? What kind of books/magazines do you read regularly?


Puzzle ideas pretty much come from everywhere, but I always prefer that they have some connection to reality. A couple years ago, when the Geico cavemen started getting popular, I thought: if there really were cavemen working among us today and they were, as the commercials said, very sensitive about the caveman stereotype, what things should you never say to them around the office? So i made a long list of things -- like, never say "I had to drag my wife to a game last night," or "Hey, no need to reinvent the wheel," or "So I gather," etc., and you could pretty much tell the whole idea to a non-puzzle fan and they'd be able to appreciate it as much as a solver would.

When we were buying our house in Florida, our real estate agent actually said, "I lost your number, so I had look up your address," and that sounded so close to "I had to look up your dress" that I immediately made a note of it -- not just that it had humor possibilities but that it hinged on "ad" being missing from "address," and perhaps each theme answer could be a common expression with the "ad" removed, and thus the puzzle could be called "The First Commercial-Free Crossword." I'm sure most constructors get their ideas in very similar ways; I just like them best when they lead to a very mainstream type of humor.

The main things I read are just newspapers and nonfiction books that sound interesting from their authors' appearances on talk shows, or on Book TV. I kind of read all over the place.

Besides the Philadelphia Inquirer/San Francisco/Washington Post Sunday puzzle and LA Times Magazine puzzle, what are your other regular crossword engagements?

I make a puzzle for the tournament every year, I make the puzzle every other month for AARP The Magazine, and I do a lot of special projects, but the weekly crossword is my main thing.

How has the crossword landscape changed since you first started? What's your view on the future of crossword?

When I sold my first puzzles to the Times in the 1960s and '70s crosswords were still very much in the old-school style. Even though Margaret Farrar and Will Weng strongly discouraged obscurities and crosswordese, such answers showed up in puzzles anyway as if there were no rules against them. Games magazine changed all of this, and I learned three valuable lessons -- 1) From Will Shortz: don't be afraid to add a black square or two if it allows the fill to be 100 per cent better. Wide-open grids are fine but not if they contain a lot of dreck. 2) From Mike Shenk: no matter how impressive the interlock is, always make sure that the three-letter words are real words, not weird abbreviations or "pluralized prefixes." And 3) From Henry Hook: try to think of common answers that contain unusual letter combinations -- like FTDIXNJ, which is simply how "Fort Dix, New Jersey" is written on envelopes -- because this adds a level of difficulty that has nothing to do with obscurity. Overall, the Games approach was really a major change in what a crossword should be, a philosophical shift, in a way, and I try to make every puzzle with these ideas in mind. I don't always succeed, but I try.

As to the future of crosswords, I think it's clear that online is the direction they're going. But I think crosswords could play a big role in helping newspapers survive, if editors would only let them. Puzzles are one of the main reasons people even buy the paper, so I think newspapers should be expanding their puzzle sections, not reducing them, with ads on the sides to help pay for them. Plus, crosswords should be laid out better -- and editors need look no further than their local supermarket, where the crossword magazines are, to see how a crossword should look on a page. I can't tell you how many times I've dealt with designers who don't seem to understand that a crossword is not like a newspaper article -- your eyes do not make nice fluid movements from line to line; rather, they jump constantly, from the clues, to the tiny numbers in the grid, back to the clues, scanning and jumping thousands of times on a Sunday-size puzzle -- which isn't easy for eyeballs that are over 50 years old. In fact, virtually every designer I've dealt with on newspapers actually resents hearing about this. I realize the economy is down but I think that if newspapers ran more puzzles -- and to be honest, more puzzle contests -- they'd attract more readers. They did this a lot in the early 1900s and I think they'd have a lot to gain by doing it now.

What puzzles do you solve every day? Who are your favorite constructors?

I usually solve whatever puzzle I can get my hands when I'm out of the house, like when I'm at Starbucks in the morning. It's usually the New York Times on Friday and Saturday, and the L.A. Times Syndicate puzzle all week long because it's in my local paper. And even though I I'm sort of known for making humorous puzzles, I prefer to solve the hard, tricky ones and the wide-open themeless ones. So my favorite constructors are Patrick Berry, Mike Shenk, Frank Longo, Manny Nosowsky, Paula Gamache, Trip Payne, Brendan Quigley, Byron Walden, Sherry Blackard, and the many other constructors (whose names I can't immediately think of) who make great themeless puzzles on Friday and Saturday (and who made them for Peter Gordon when the Sun puzzle existed). Among the "old guard," my favorites were Jack Luzzatto and A.J. Santora.

10) Besides constructing crossword, what else do you do for fun?

I play keyboards -- not well, but it sounds like I know what I'm doing -- and I've written a lot of melodic pieces, probably about 50 hours' worth if I recorded them all back to back. I played keyboards in a rock band in the early 1970s and then was part of a theater group in Tucson AZ that did all-original plays and musicals, and I wrote the music for the musicals (we did about a dozen altogether, with about ten songs per show). I also collect movie soundtracks and have a nearly complete collection of film composer Bernard Herrmann's work -- he scored "Citizen Kane," "The Day the Earth Stood Still, "Psycho," Taxi Driver," and a ton of other films. My current favorite film composer is Thomas Newman, who scored "The Shawshank Redemption" among many others. I'm also a big animation fan (I have a big collection of classic cartoons), so it really was like a dream come true to be in an episode of "The Simpsons."

Additional links:

1)
Merl's crossword discussions on Oprah.

2) Merl's Sunday puzzle.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Merl has a brain for wordplay. Thank you both for the interview.

Anna

Dennis said...

Just an outstanding interview; simply the best crossword interview I've read.

As C.C. knows, I've been a big fan of Merl's for as far back as I can remember, and his answer to #4 in the interview sums up the reasons why. For those of you who don't get his Sunday puzzles, you're really missing out on an entertaining, enlightening experience.

C.C., Merl, thanks for a great read.

C. C. said...

Anna,
Great to see you again.

Dennis,
Were Merl's earlier puzzles very punny also?

MJ,
Hope today's interview with Merl makes your Sunday LA Times solving more enjoyable.

melissa bee said...

best interview yet, c.c., thank you so much. i was first introduced to merl reagle when i saw 'wordplay,' and was enthralled seeing the construction process. just fantastic to read about his inspirations and evolution as a constructor. bravo/a to you both.

these interviews are what puts your blog way ahead of the pack.

PJB-Chicago said...

C.C.: Wow, I repeat wow, that really is a good interview with a fascinating person. People tend to look at us who like to solve puzzles as a dull, humorless group; that interview--along with many discussions on your blog--proves that we're serious about the puzzles; sure; but that we love to laugh and share that laughter. "Wordplay" does have "play" in it, after all.
Thanks for bringing such a finely-crafted interiew to us.

Alex said...

wow, I repeat wow too. terrific interview. love merl and his humor.

Argyle said...

Two things: 1. I love the fact that Merl would have the same complaints about bad puzzles that we have.
2. Merl, (for my cousin's sake) what happened to the E at the end of Merle.

Crockett1947 said...

Merl Reagle, Thank You so much for a marvelous interview, and the same for you, C.C. I really enjoyed reading that. Sounds like a guy you'd like to have a beer with!

@arglye e just went away.

MJ said...

C.C.--Thank you for the terrific interview! Sundays are my favorite puzzle days. I am in awe of those who have the brilliant minds and ability to construct puzzles, and grateful to those who can do so with a sense of humor.

Merl Reagle--Thank you for taking the time to share with us! Fun to put a face with a name via the Oprah clip.

kazie said...

Thank you both for a very insightful look at the work of a genius. It certainly broadened my understanding of the whole process, and like Dennis said, was the very best interview so far.

Anonymous said...

Entertaining and informative. Thanks, Merl.

Anonymous said...

Where do you find puzzle maker name?

Kelly

JD said...

Merl, thanks so much for sharing your expertise and your amazing gift with us. Such a great interview. CC, you always know just what to ask!Thanks to you both!
,,,and now, on to the show

Clear Ayes said...

I had to comment on the interview before I went to today's blog. It was too good to wait. Both C.C. and Merl Reagle were at the top of their game.

Thanks so much.

WM said...

Thank you both for such an interesting and insightful interview...and I do think we'd prefer to have and a laugh or a groan as we fill in the little squares.

Also like Merl's idea to improve puzzle pages.

Merl...thank you so much for taking the time to share your expertise and insight!

KQ said...

Great interview. Makes me want to solve more of his puzzles. I do not believe we get his puzzles in our Sunday paper, but I certainly wish we did. I love a good theme and punny puzzle.

Thanks for your time with us Merl.

embien said...

Thanks to c.c. and Merl for a fantastic interview. I'm very impressed that Merl would take the time to provide such thoughtful answers to the questions.

The "Simpsons" NYT Sunday puzzle is one of my all-time favorites (even though I'm not a viewer of the TV program any longer). That was one amazing puzzle and I'm glad I taped the episode so my enjoyment was enhanced.

E.M. said...

I was honored to be invited to Phil Proctor's (Firesign Theatre)house for dinner and to play Scrabble with Merl. He, of course, has the board memorized so he takes advantage of the triple word and double word opportunities. He won the first game and I won the second by laying down my final three tiles to spell "elan". So I beat Merl with elan! An honor and was simply the luck of the draw.