An Interview With Evan Birnholz, The Washington Post’s New Crossword Constructor

Evan Birnholz is The Washington Post's new crossword constructor. (Photo: Vicki Jones)

Evan Birnholz is the new crossword constructor for The Washington Post. (Photo: Vicki Jones)

When the crossword constructor Merl Reagle died in August, he left behind a lot of newspaper editors around the country who relied on his weekly syndicated puzzle to fill their back pages. Mr. Reagle was a Falstaffian man known for his inexhaustible wit and playful sensibility, and his 21 by 21 grid was published in dozens of places, including this newspaper and The Washington Post’s Sunday magazine. Earlier this month, the Post announced that Evan Birnholz, a 32-year-old cruciverbalist who lives in Philadelphia, will take over as the paper’s new crossword constructor. Mr. Birnholz has been making crosswords for about six years, and until recently he published a weekly crossword on his website, Devil Cross. He starts December 6. In a recent phone interview, we discussed what attracted him to puzzles, the link between music and crosswords, and how he imagines he’ll step out of Merl Reagle’s long shadow.

How did you get into puzzles?

My dad is to blame for it. He would solve the New York Times puzzle every day, when I was younger. And I would try to help him out, but at a young age I couldn’t really do very much with it. But eventually I got into solving and thought, Why not try to make one? And I of course failed miserably the first time I tried it in January 2009, but I got a lot of practice and kept doing it and eventually got skilled enough and confident enough that I felt like any puzzle I made would turn out O.K. That’s the bare bones explanation, but I like to think I have a deeper kind of explanation, which comes from a background of doing things in music.

Can you elaborate on that?

Crosswords and music have a lot of similarities. When I was younger, I played the piano a lot, and I arranged music when I was in college. I sang in an a cappella group and I did a lot of arranging of their music in my last two years there. If you think about a piece of Western music, it has a lot of things that constrain you when you’re putting it together, but they’re the things that we tell ourselves make a piece creative: it has a tempo and rhythm, a time signature, a key signature, if it has lyrics you have to ask if they’re going to rhyme. And I think of crosswords as operating with a similar set of constraints. They’re different but they’re in fact literal barriers, like the size of a grid, the type of words you use, the length of the words you use, where you put the black squares. But even with those constraints, just like in a piece of music, you can still be very creative and innovative with them—they’re just working with different canvases. I don’t think what I’m doing right now is radically different from arranging a piece of music. I just think of the crossword as a different kind of art.

Have you talked anyone else in the crossword world about that connection? I know Ben Tausig, the editor of American Values Club, is a musicologist.

This is only something I’ve really articulated to myself. But you’re right, Ben Tausig is a professor of ethnomusicology in New York, and he would probably find some meaning in that as well.

Did you study music?

I’ve been doing music in some way for almost my entire life. I started playing the piano when I was 5, and played for about 15 years. And I’ve been singing, not just in the a cappella group, but I sang in a couple of choirs after college. Right now I’m in the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, which is one the oldest choirs in the country.

I know you’re a big fan of Merl Reagle. How do you feel your crosswords will stand apart from his?

He was very good at taking just about any phrase and turning it into some clever or funny little pun. And I want to make sure any time I try to turn a phrase into a pun that it’s going to be clever or funny. One thing I try to do is I take a lot of pride in making sure my grids are completely smooth and clean. And when I use the terms smooth and clean, I try to make sure all of my words are either reasonably common or words that people know and use. It may be a tough clue, but it’s actually out there in popular culture—it’s accessible. I don’t want to load down my puzzles with really obscure information, or words that don’t really exist anywhere except in crosswords. I guess that would be my style, though I can’t really say. It’s interesting that working with the print version of the Post puzzles, I have to write more concise than I’m used to being on my website, for space constraints. And so I end up having to make my clues a little easier than I thought I could make them, because you can only be so tricky when you have three words to work with.

In the 1980s, Merl Reagle was in the vanguard of the indie crossword world—which has, perhaps like punk rock, become a mainstream aspect of the culture today. Do you feel like you’re bringing a more indie sensibility to the mainstream puzzle world, since you’re coming from a new kind of online community of indie constructors?

I would hope so. Every constructor comes from a different background; they’re all bringing different voices with them. For example, I grew up in the mid-80s and the early 90s, and I played a lot of video games when I was young, like a lot of people in that age group, so I tend to have a few video game-related clues in my puzzles that maybe not everyone will know about. But I’m happy to do that as long as I can cross those words fairly and people will still get it.

Henry Hook, another kind of canonical crossword constructor, died recently, too. Were you a fan of his work?

You know, I hadn’t solved a lot of his puzzles in the Boston Globe. I think a lot of them, for a time anyway, had been behind a paywall. So I didn’t have as much familiarity with his puzzles as I did other puzzle makers, but I do know that he was a pioneer of a puzzle called the “Something Different,” which is a kind of wacky, gonzo puzzle, where a lot of the answers are just made up. And how would you possibly solve that? It’s because a lot of the short answers are legitimate—they’re real words. You start there and a bunch of the other words just open up. I remember having, in one of my “Something Differents,” “tautology that means milliners will keep on making head coverings and I don’t care.” And the answer was, “hatters gonna hat.”

Have you made your first Post puzzle?

Yes.

How far ahead are you?

Right now I’m not as far ahead as I’d like to be, but I’m right now operating three weeks ahead of schedule. I’m trying to aim to write two Sunday-sized puzzles every week.

How long does it take you to make a puzzle?

It depends on how difficult the theme I’m working with is. If I had to put an estimate on how much time it takes me to do one of them, I mean, writing a grid can take anywhere from 6 hours for an easy one, just to put the letters in the grid, and writing clues will take several more hours because I tend to be very picky about writing original clues. If it’s a difficult grid it can take me a couple of days, so it’s kind of an evolving process.

Will you do meta puzzles?

Those are fun to do, but I probably won’t do them immediately. I love those puzzles where there’s the extra challenge of finding some phrase or word that ties everything together. And I’ve written some for my website. Rarely have I made one for a Sunday-sized puzzle, though I did make one that was a tribute to Merl Reagle. That was probably one of the hardest things that I’ve ever made, so we’ll see.

Do you have any advice for aspiring crossword constructors?

A career in crossword construction is not necessarily something I feel I’m qualified to give advice about just because this is my first gig at it. But I’ll say that, first of all, if you saw me when I was a child, you would have thought that the notion of me making crosswords was probably insane. When I was younger, I had gone to different speech therapists, and they found that I had something they call Semantic Pragmatic Disorder; it’s a language impairment where you have difficulty understanding expressions and idioms and why a joke is funny. That was very difficult for me when I was young. And I’d seen speech therapists for a while to help me understand different meanings of words and expressions—and to think that same kid grew up to be able to write crosswords every week and now has a job doing it at The Washington Post, I think that’s pretty crazy. So people are going to say, it’s too difficult, it’s too hard. I mean, it’s not easy, but I was able to do it. And I would say if it’s something you enjoy doing, you need to really put your energy into it.

What did you do beforehand?

I’ve been all over the map. When I was in college, I was a chemistry major, because I thought at the time maybe I’d do pre-med work. But I changed my mind and got a master’s degree in public health at Drexel University, worked in the pharmaceutical industry and medical research for a few years, but I changed my mind again. I ended up going to grad school to get a degree in history. It was a doctoral program. I tried out a lot of different things not always knowing what exactly I’d be doing when I got into the programs. But the whole time I had puzzles with me as kind of this other thing that I was doing. At first it was a hobby, but at some point it became much more than that; it became what I really love. And I had to learn those things about myself, and it wasn’t always easy, but I eventually found what it was I wanted to do, and here we are.

Do you read the papers a lot to get your trivia? Or is it something you know based on your own epistemological framework?

That’s a good question. I’d say this is one way where my training in the history department helps. You sort of learn to check a lot of different sources for information. When I’m trying to build a puzzle, you always go to Google and try to find different angles for different clues; you look up a lot of different resources to find things. And even just for solving puzzles, a lot of it’s just familiarity with the answers that you see again and again and again. I don’t consider myself to be a great trivia person, but if you give me a few letters, I’m usually able to figure them out.

An Interview With Evan Birnholz, The Washington Post’s New Crossword Constructor