Date: July 12 2005
Byline: Nina Willdorf
New York Times crossword-puzzle writer by day, local pop-punk rocker by night, Brendan Emmett Quigley is hard to box in
AT 26, BRENDAN Emmett Quigley isn't the youngest crossword-puzzle constructor out there (if you want to get nitpicky about it, there's that 16-year-old upstart from England). But ask around in the world of puzzles, and people gush about his "freshness." He introduced me to this band called Radiohead, enthuses one. He's a master at throwing around pop-culture references, sighs another.
In fact, spend five minutes in this rarefied world — where high-fives and word-use quibbles fly over message boards faster than you can say "Dungeons & Dragons" — and it becomes amply clear that this gangly, frizzy-haired Norwood native is something of a god.
On an afternoon in one of his favorite crossword-constructing haunts, the puzzle guy — outfitted in saggy, faded black jeans and a super-size, yellow European soccer jersey — recounts how he came to his unlikely trade: he was initiated into the crossword tribe as a fresh-faced cherub the summer between his junior and senior years at the University of New Hampshire when, all naïveté and nonchalance, he attempted his first New York Times puzzle. Attempted ... and flailed. But he was more challenged than discouraged by its difficulty, and started consuming puzzles like crack. As the habit progressed, he decided to take a shot at constructing. He begrudgingly exchanged his cocky pen (Look, Mom, no eraser!) for a forgiving pencil, pored over a book on puzzle construction, and sat down to try his hand at the other side.
The first (first!) puzzle Brendan made up and sent to the New York Times was picked up by the paper's crossword editor, noted puzzle guru Will Shortz. Six years after Quigley's Times debut, he's made a fan of Shortz, who moons over his consonant use, his liberalism with lesser-seen letters, and his appeal to non-geriatric puzzle-doers. That's probably because this crossword wunderkind is known for stunts like putting Britney Spears next to, say, Émile Zola. And one of his consonant-heavy entries, like JFK Jr. or VH1 — well, that really gets Shortz's juices flowing. "Brendan uses interesting phrases you don't often see in crosswords that everyone knows," he raves. "Lesser-used letters like j, q, x, and z, and fewer s, r, l, and t's.... He's quite good at wide-open construction."
These days, Quigley regularly sells his puzzles to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. Unlike many of the hundred or so other constructors in the world, Brendan is versatile, notes Shortz: he's a Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday guy (puzzles get harder as the week progresses), but he's also done some damage on Saturdays and Sundays. "Most people specialize," explains Shortz. "But Brendan can do everything."
Within the puzzle community — an inarguably fervent crew of irony-challenged devotees — Brendan Emmett Quigley's work sparks lively debate. "People on our message board get automatically excited," says Henry Rathvon, who manages the Times' message board with partner Emily Cox. Sure enough, after a recent Quigley puzzle, the verbal butt-pats start cracking: "Nice one, Brendan!" writes Amy Andersen; Jenny Gutbezhal breathlessly types in that a "BEQ" makes her feel smart and not "beat up," even on a challenging Friday or Saturday. "Maybe I'm just on the same wavelength," she says, "but his puzzles are generally pretty smooth sailing for me. Not fast, necessarily, but I don't get bogged down staring at one corner for a long time."
Brendan may have made his mark in the crossword community a while back, but it's only in the past month that his name has registered on the national non-puzzle radar. In the Endpaper of the April 8 New York Times Magazine, Will Shortz name-checked him at the end of a column on "How To Solve the New York Times Crossword Puzzle" : "Brendan Emmett Quigley, 26, a guitarist for a rock band in Boston, conveys a younger, more pop-cultured sensibility. " Sound hip? Well, it was enough to win phone calls from Details, the Phoenix, and the Harvard Crimson. Immediately, Brendan was initiated into the art of spinning himself.
In conversation, he tries to paint himself as an accidental media darling, taking a page from Dave Eggers. Talking himself up, he seems consciously self-deprecating, and quickly gets immersed in his own meta-narrative. "Have you ever painted a room?" he asks over the phone before our meeting, trying to provide an analogy for puzzle construction. "It's kind of like that. It's kind of dull.... I guess I can show you ... it's like watching a guy erase things." A few seconds later he adds, "Not that you would really give a shit about this. I have a kind of Woody Allen thing going on." In conversation, he mentions that he's reading Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. "I wish he didn't break down the fourth wall," he muses, commenting on Eggers's layered use of literary irony. Still, he likes the book enough that he's toying with the idea of basing a puzzle on it.
At our meeting, when he's finally prompted to start constructing the promised puzzle after half an hour of background conversation, he seems a bit stunned that the interview didn't go ... deeper. "Is that it?" he asks, at once disappointed and self-righteous. "Sure. All right, um ... very good," he mumbles, quickly shuffling papers. Then he starts to maneuver: "You know, shortly after you called me, this student at Harvard asked to do the same article." He looks off, coyly. "It's just interesting to see the overlap of questions ..."
Brendan, who was a journalism major in college, pretends not to know that when he agrees to an interview, it's considered extremely bad form to give the same interview to another paper that's going to be published first. When prompted to be specific about what questions he's been asked before, he visibly struggles. "God, I don't remember." Well, then, when did the piece come out? "It would beeee ... jeez, I should have read the article before I came over. I didn't want to give you fodder for slagging me." Brendan seems to get panicked when pressed, and starts flailing around, breathing heavily. Finally, he gasps a frenzied request: "Can you, can you just turn that OFF!" He grimaces at the tape recorder. Later he explains himself: "It's a totally David Eggers moment," he sputters, eyes darting. "I'm totally aware of what I'm doing and what she's doing."
The next day, realizing that his Phoenix story is in jeopardy, Brendan calls back. "I don't really see what the big deal is," he says. "I mean, the Phoenix arts section writes fluff pieces that show up in other papers all the time."
AS IT turns out, an arts-section fluff piece is what he's been angling for all along. Brendan is in a local amateur pop-punk band called Hip Tanaka, he'd like you to know. If he were to write himself into a crossword puzzle, his preferred clue would probably be " rock star. " Before our meeting, Brendan sends over a batch of his band's new CDs and requests that a couple be slipped to the Phoenix's music section. And at the end of a crossword-centric chat, he coyly points the conversation to his band. "It's funny," he hints. "I probably talk about music more than anything other than crosswords." Ahem, ahem. When the tape recorder is shut off for the second and final time, he furrows his brow and asks, "Is that it? Just this article?"
Mounting the stage at T.T. the Bear's with his guitar a few hours later, Brendan seems much more at ease. He smirks, at home with a beer and a cigarette dangling from the sides of his permanently puckered lips. Over the course of the set, he does his languid thing in front of a crowd of Boston's best blunt-cut-black-banged rocker chicks, giggling at the occasional wild thing he blurts into the mike. "This is a song we like to call ‘Checking the levels,'" he says with a grin, as he casually strums.
During the day, however, the bespectacled fellow can usually be found working furiously at his other job, slung over graph paper and overflowing coffee mugs in various cafés around Brookline and Brighton, his current home. There he sits, madly erasing, concentrating really, really hard, and occasionally freaking out about letters. "I hate u's," Brendan barks at one point while constructing a puzzle. "They look like they'd be pretty flexible, but they're not." Upon further consideration, he puts his fair head in his hand and, drawn out by an indulgent ear, contemplates his dislike for v's and f's as well. As an afterthought, he slags on another alphabetical troublemaker. "Z's aren't particularly friendly either." Summing up, Quigley wags his finger at the tape recorder: "Vowels good, consonants bad."
Somehow, Brendan has cobbled together a full-time career out of puzzle-making, placing at least one a week in newspapers from coast to coast. But at $75 a pop from the New York Times for a daily puzzle and $250 for a Sunday — high-end pay — it's no get-rich quick scheme.
Over the past six years, Brendan has worked himself up to the prolific output of about a hundred puzzles a year. He starts most of them by selecting a theme. (Shortz says that some of his favorite themes from Brendan's archives include "You Chauvinist Pig," "The Usual Suspects," and "Boys Will Be Girls.") To give an example of how he picks a theme, Brendan uses his newest interest in avant-garde jazz as a logical launch pad. He arrives at the theme "From A to Z" by tracing the path of the letters in the words — the "a" at the beginning of "avant," the "z" at the end of "jazz." He quickly rattles off a few possible entries for the "theme slots," which typically occupy longer, horizontal strings of squares in the middle of the puzzle: Alcatraz, All Abuzz, and Annie Leibovitz.
Quigley then creates his blank puzzle. For a weekday crossword, he blocks off a square of 15 spaces across by 15 spaces down (Sunday puzzles are 21 by 21) and starts by randomly shading in black spaces, drawing a symmetrical grid. After completing his empty puzzle, with black boxes drawn in, he "attacks" a corner. According to Brendan, corners are problematic for both puzzle-makers and puzzle-doers; he says his mom sometimes "gets stuck" in one and calls in his dad to help get her out. As for constructors, he says they generally start by filling in words in the corner and work their way in to the center.
And if you think constructing a puzzle is an organic affair undertaken only by those with encyclopedic knowledge of words, think again. There's a not-so-secret reference, The New York Times Crossword Puzzle Answer Book, which Brendan calls "the Bible." Confronted with a blank entry, say T_ _ _K, Brendan can quickly flip to the five-letter-word section of the 700-page tome and select one of the many words that have those letters. He doesn't even know what half of them mean, but who's gonna figure that out? After fitting all the letters into squares to make words, Quigley starts to write clues.
Clue-writing is the hardest part for him. For someone presumed to have a way with words, he has an unlikely penchant for cliché and an odd preference for outdated language, such as "I'm borin' ya to tears here." Head crossword honcho Shortz rewrites almost all the clues for Brendan's New York Times puzzles (he redoes the clues for most other contributors, too). The rewriting of clues can push a Monday puzzle to a Saturday slot by making it trickier, Brendan explains. For example, if Brendan entered the word "complex" into a crossword grid, it could be clued a couple of different ways: 1) a group of buildings; 2) what Brendan would like you to think he is.
Well, maybe he is. At his best, Brendan is a savvy lettersmith, wooing crossword constituents with his cunning jeux de mots, throwing together an of-the-moment amalgam of references to pop culture, literature, music, religion, and whatever else pops into his fast-firing brain. At his most difficult, though, he's a manipulative trickster. Getting him to answer a simple question requires true effort. (Asked what his major was at the college Brendan cutely nicknames "the University of No Hope," he initially displays his preference for best fit over truth: "Mmmmm, let's just say ... English.")
"It's a game," Brendan says later, eyes glinting. "You wanna see what you can get away with."