Few changes have occasioned as much sad talk at The Walrus as the decision, in 2008, to drop our crossword. Reasons remain hazy. Some say budget. Some editorial fatigue. Maybe it seemed too whimsical an offering for a venture that, just a few years in, was still trying hard to be taken seriously.
New year, new start: the crossword is back, starting with the March/April issue, on newsstands now. The crossword’s resurrection, along with a terrific array of daily games now available to be solved on thewalrus.ca/games, is rooted in the desire to provide readers, especially puzzle enthusiasts, with more reasons to spend time with us. But we also wanted to extend our values—namely, a generalist’s love of sundry topics and a deep appreciation of language—into new forms.
Constructed by Vancouver librarian Emma Lawson, who makes history as our first official crossword editor, the puzzle will have a Walrusy twist: clues will be partly drawn from each issue’s cover story. Lawson belongs to a wave of inclusive constructors trying to move beyond the industry’s long-standing influencers—the white, upper-middle-class, male creators who for decades largely dictated what was allowed in a 15 x 15 grid and what was not. Recent years have brought a revolution: more crosswords made by women, more culturally diverse clues, as well as a wider range of incorporated words and references from underrepresented communities. Crosswords now challenge what “common knowledge” means, and I look forward to Lawson pushing us to think critically and creatively.
Colby Payne, our Canadian Race Relations Fellow, interviewed Lawson on her experience as a constructor and what she hopes to achieve in her new role with us.
—Carmine Starnino, editor-in-chief
What would you say are the most important skills that you need to make crosswords?
Patience. Some puzzles come really quickly; you can finish them in an hour. And some of them take days and days to perfect. You also have to not be afraid to kill your darlings, a little bit like writing, when sometimes you come up with a really good section but it means that this other part of the puzzle is really hard to fill. And so you end up having to take out all of this beautiful work that you did in order to make the whole puzzle a lot better. But if you have a mind that likes to solve crossword puzzles, you would probably also enjoy constructing them. It’s a puzzle in the same kind of way that solving one is.
What’s your favourite part of developing crosswords?
I definitely prefer gridding. Gridding is building the grid, putting the black squares, and putting in all of the entries. And you do that first, before you build the clues. With cluing, you have a lot more freedom, but that can be kind of scary sometimes when there’s a million different angles. Whereas with building the grid, you are much more constrained in what you’re able to do. And working within those constraints can be a little bit easier.
And when you’re creating clues, how do you find the right balance of a clue that isn’t too difficult or cheesy?
It’s a little bit based on each individual clue, but it’s also sort of the overall clues across a puzzle. You know, it’s fun to have trivia clues that tell you a really cool piece of information, but you want to make sure that not all of your clues in a puzzle are trivia clues, right? Because then that’s going to be really difficult for the solver. So having a balance of clues—you know, some definitional, some wordplay, some trivia, some fill-in-the-blanks—is really important. But when making puzzles for The Walrus, I do assume that most of the readers are pretty smart, pretty well educated, so I’m not afraid to put in terms that might be a little less well known, or trivia that might be a little bit more difficult, because I know that the readers will be able to get it. You also want to think about the crosses. If you have a difficult clue going across, you want to make sure that all of the down entries that connect with it are gettable, right? You don’t want to have two pieces of trivia about two different people who might not be super well known. You don’t want those two entries to cross because that can make that one square really difficult to get.
Do you do a lot of research to come up with clues, or are you able to just come up with them?
I mean, some of the more definitional clues you can just come up with from your head. But if you’re going for a trivia angle, I do like to do a little bit of research. There’s a lot of looking through Wikipedia to see what’s an interesting fact about this place or this thing or this person and then going off to find out a bit more from a more reputable source. I don’t know everything about everything. And part of constructing is also learning about the people and places and things that I put in my puzzles. So I definitely do like to do a little bit of research to come up with fun, interesting clue angles, or you just make notes of things that you encounter in the wild. Where you’re like: that’s a really cool fact, or that’s a really cool thing that I want to put in my puzzle.
Do you have a personal favourite clue/answer that you have included in a puzzle or one that you’ve just seen in general?
One of my personal favourites was for a puzzle where the entry was “Spotted owl.” And the clue was “Type of nocturnal bird or what a birder might say when they see it.” So that one was cute and fun but still super gettable to me. The wordplay clues are definitely some of the most fun, where you’re playing with a different definition of a word. I think it was Erik Agard who had a puzzle. And the clue was “Summons for Congress?” with a question mark, indicating that there’s some kind of wordplay, and the answer was “Booty call.” Which is really fun, really cheeky. Those are definitely the most fun clues, but I also find them so hard to come up with. Anytime I see a good one, I’m just like: You guys are incredible and amazing. I also do love having a fun trivia angle on an entry that’s been seen a million times—so if you can come up with a fun trivia angle for “Oreo,” well done, because “Oreo” comes up all the time in crosswords.
Do you have any crossword pet peeves or things that you don’t like to see in a crossword?
I’m pretty easygoing when it comes to my crosswords. I don’t mind seeing the words that come up again and again in crosswords, because now, as a constructor, I know how important those are to be able to build a workable grid. Sometimes there are clues that I think just don’t work quite right, or the humour that they’re getting at isn’t quite there, but for the most part, I just love to do all crosswords.
Is there anything you particularly like to see in a crossword?
I love good wordplay. I like to learn something with a crossword, you know, so if I’m exposed to things that I haven’t heard before, or people I haven’t encountered before, that’s always cool to me. I’ll usually go try to follow up on that after if I see something like that. I really like it when you can see a constructor through the crossword, where you know that this crossword is made by a particular person. It has a point of view, it has a personality. They’re more interesting when they have a bit of humanity to them, when it’s not a puzzle that anybody else could have made. It’s a puzzle that only this person could have made.
What sorts of responses or feedback on your puzzles have you gotten from people? Has there been anything that has surprised you?
Not really. I mean, with most published puzzles, if you’re publishing in a newspaper or a magazine or something, you don’t necessarily get feedback. Most of the feedback I get is when I post something online on my personal website, because then there’s an opportunity for direct feedback. If I can get feedback from other constructors, saying that they like it, that’s really meaningful to me, but you know, if anybody wants to tell me my puzzles are awesome, I’d love to hear it. If anybody wants to tell me my puzzle sucks, I’d still probably want to hear.
Is there anything in particular that you think people wouldn’t know about the process or that they would be interested to know?
It’s both easier and harder than you think to make a crossword puzzle. But also, there’s a really supportive community out there if anybody is interested in constructing puzzles.
Are you good at Scrabble? Do you like playing Scrabble?
I enjoy Scrabble, but I’m not competitive enough. I used to play with my partner all the time, but he’s one of those people who’s really sneaky and likes to put a word directly next to your word. And it gets a little bit like two-letter words, whereas I’m just like I want to put a cool word, or I just want to get through it as quickly as possible. I don’t have as much patience for Scrabble as I do for, say, a crossword, so I don’t have the competitive spirit. Whereas with a crossword, I’m really only competing with myself. There are competitions you can do and tournaments where it is based on speed, but I’m nowhere near the upper levels of speed solving. For me, it’s just about competing with myself or just trying to get to the end of the puzzle.
Yeah, I get frustrated with not having all the letters, so I think I prefer crosswords too. Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Just that I’m really excited to be bringing the crossword back. And would love any feedback from readers about the crosswords—if there’s things they want to see, things they hate. We’d love to know.
Thank you. I’ve never seen everyone so excited.
Writers tend to like crosswords, readers tend to like crosswords. It makes sense for an organization like The Walrus.