Dec 23, 2009

Interview with Brendan Emmett Quigley

Those who solve NYT & the Onion puzzles regularly are probably very familiar with Brendan Emmett Quigley and his cool contemporary puzzle style.

Since August 1996, Brendan has had 124 puzzles published by NY Times alone. His works have also appeared in LA Times, NY Sun, Newsday, The Chronicle of Higher Education, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, etc. He also authored over thirty different books. In his website, Brendan offers very topical and off-beat puzzles every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

In my previous interviews, Dan Feyer, Rex Parker and Merl Reagle all mentioned Brendan as one of their favorite constructors. Hope you enjoy these few glimpses into the mind of a very talented and successful crossword constructor.

To many LAT-only solvers, this is our first encounter with you since the TMS switch last March. What is your background and how did you get into crossword construction?

Back when I was in college, I had a really shitty summer job: I photocopied cases for a law firm. In the summer leading up to my senior year, there was a new policy implemented that forbade us from listening to the radio while we did this shitty job. Since I needed something to distract myself somehow, I turned to the New York Times crossword. I'd never solved one before, but in those three months of dutifully doing them every day, I got hooked. When I went back to school (UNH), I decided to try my hand at making them. Through dumb luck, the first one I made, I sold to the New York Times. And I've been selling them to, well, just about everybody in those 13 years since.

As a professional puzzle constructor, what is a typical day like for you? And what are common misconceptions people have about you?

After I kiss my wife Liz goodbye (she's a psychologist), I make the back-breaking eight step commute to my office in our condo. After doing all the daily puzzles and reading all the crossword blogs, (as well as some news sites, sports sites, music sites, etc.), I'll tackle whatever puzzle needs to be done that day, whether it's one for my blog, a one-off for a client, or for the regular syndicates I sell to. Of course, the muse hardly ever speaks to me at in morning. So it's usually more web-surfing. Researching ideas. IM-ing. etc. I almost always get my groove going only well into the afternoon, and it is without fail that I'm really firing on all cylinders when Liz comes home from work.

As for common misconceptions, I'm taller than people imagined.

What is the highlight of your construction career and what is the best puzzle you've made? Why?

There's been a bunch of highlights, I think. It's kind of tough to pick just one. Well, if we limit it to just this year: My blog took off, I was honored to have a puzzle in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament; I think my book of diagramless crosswords came out fantastic; plus I made puzzles that were referenced on episodes of "Jeopardy!," and "Sunday Night Football" (two different puzzles).

We seem to get a lot of "Word that preceeds/follows ... " style puzzle theme in LA Times. What's your view on this trend and what kind of theme really appeals to you as a solver?

I wrote a controversial post for my blog, "Ten Bullshit Themes." I had that "word that precedes/follows" gimmick at #5. It's not bad in and of itself, it just seems a little half-baked.

What themes work? Stuff we haven't seen before. Innovation. Up to the minute references. Humor.

As a constructor, what makes an non-theme entry spark? The freshness? Scrabbliness? Boldness? I'd like to know your definition and standard of an excellent fill.

Fill should be never before seen stuff. Since a lot of puzzles nowadays are computer assisted, a lot of us puzzlemakers have the same databases. So a lot of the so-called "fresh stuff" (the scrabliness, the up-to-date-stuff) that are in the database tend to keep coming up again and again. Seems like constructors nowadays aren't really that interested in being the first to use certain entries. Well, I don't want to make a blanket statement and say everybody doesn't like to go fresh, but we know who they are.

What's your view on grids with low word/block count or those who really stretch the rules of construction?

Cluing a puzzle is a necessary evil, so if I can get a lower word count I'd much rather go that route. Besides, if you have a more open grid, there's a better chance that you can get those new fresh entries in there.

You are a very creative and prolific constructor, where do you get your inspirations? What kind of books/magazines/websites do you read?

Thanks.

My Inspirations? All the usual places. Day to day life, things I might read, things Liz might say, etc.

I just started Thomas Pynchon's "Inherent Vice." The only magazine I read is "Wired." Websites? ESPN, SI, Pitchfork, Drudge, PopDose, the Gawker media pages, Rex Parker, Crossword Fiend, etc.

What kind of puzzle do you solve every day? And who are your favorite constructors?

Well, I solve the New York and LA Times puzzles every day. I'm also a massive sudoku nut. Lately, I've been turned onto Thomas Snyder's beautiful handmade (!) sudoku puzzles.

As for favorite constructors? The list is enormous. But let me share this. I was chatting with Francis Heaney, who is a top-flight editor as well as puzzlemaker, about Patrick Berry's latest tour-de-force. Except I was being a doofus, and I didn't refer to Patrick by name. Instead I called him "The Crossword Jesus." Francis interpreted that sobriquet as belonging to Frank Longo, who, let's face it is another god among men. So I could easily have been referring to Frank. Then I was thinking about it later, Mike Shenk could stake a claim as "The Crossword Jesus" as well. Maybe we could get some panel discussion sometime of those three guys: "The Three Crossword Jesuses," I'm not sure where I'm going with this, but those guys are all awesome.

What are your planning for 2010 construction-wise? Any special books?

I'm just planning on expanding the blog's empire.

10 comments:

Dennis said...

One of the best interviews I've read here. And how cool to get one's first puzzle submission accepted! Also, I remember the Sunday Night football one, but didn't know about Jeopardy; pretty neat.

I would recommend everyone read Brendan's 'Ten Bullshit Themes'; I think they'll resonate with the majority of us.

Brendan, you'll contract to do a one-off for someone?

Loved the 'I'm taller than people imagined' comment.

Again, a great interview; thanks to both Brendan and our 'Mike Wallace', C.C.

Anonymous said...

BEQ, terrific interview. I loved this puzzle. Fun theme.

Carol

Anonymous said...

Incredibly fun interview. Cool.

KQ said...

Thanks for the great interview. What an awesome job. Get up, drink coffee, do crosswords and read blogs all day. Yes, I know there is more to it than that, but it sure sounds great!

kazie said...

Sounds like a dream existence--doing what you want all day. All right, it's what we retirees do too, but in your mid-thirties (?) it must be great.

Very enjoyable non bullshit interview. Thank you both, Brendan and C.C.

Brendan Emmett Quigley said...

@Dennis, I'm not sure what the "I'll contract to do a one-off for someone" means. But if you mean, you'd like me to make a puzzle for someone you know, get in touch and let's talk.

Dennis said...

Brendan, I was keying off your remark about tackling a 'one-off for a customer'. I'll get in touch after I get back; thanks for the response.

Anonymous said...

Good to see you here, BEQ.

Crockett1947 said...

C.C., you do us all a service with these interviews!

BEQ, Thank You for sharing your thoughts with us.

PJB-Chicago said...

BEQ's puzzles in the Onion and at his site are always tough, clever, fresh and fun. His LAT debut is no exception. You may find fill that might not pass the "breakfast test" or be based on music/slang you might not have run across yet, but he fits everything together so you can almost always make a good guess! They're worth seeking out.

C.C., what a fascinating interview with an interesting constructor. Like you, he makes what he does look easy, even though it's lots and lots of work!