This issue, Assistant News Editor Sonja Bistranin talks with Merl Reagle about hi career as a crossword puzzle maker and his experiences on TV.
1. How did your career begin?
I made my first crossword when I was 6 and sold my first crossword to the New York Times when I was 16. But I guess my "career" actually began when the San Francisco Examiner asked me to make their Sunday crossword in 1985. That was my first regular newspaper gig. The whole idea was to create my own syndicate and to sell the San Francisco puzzle to other newspapers. By the year 2000, I had moved over to the San Francisco Chronicle, and by the year 2008, I was in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and about 50 other major papers. About eight years after the puzzles come out in the paper, we reprint them in book form. Volume 18 is the most recent one. Since we started publishing them in 1991, we've sold about $9 million worth of books.
2. What inspires your crosswords?
Almost anything that contains letters and words – street signs, commercials, people talking. I remember being in a doctor's office and hearing "Killing Me Softly" on the Muzak and thinking, "Geez, do I have to hear this while I'm being stuck with a needle?" But that led to a puzzle about inappropriate Muzak for a doctor's office. It was called "Uneasy Listening."
3. What was it like being in the documentary "Wordplay"?
Unbelievable. About 770 documentaries applied to be in the Sundance Film
Festival that year (2006) and they selected only about 15. "Wordplay" was one of them. All of us went to the festival and for four days found out what it was like to be mini-movie stars. The film got incredible reviews – at Rotten Tomatoes, only "The Queen" and "Pan's Labyrinth" had gotten better reviews. And it was because of "Wordplay" that I was on "Oprah" and became a character on "The Simpsons."
4. How did you get involved with the Alzheimer's Foundation?
My wife's mother got the disease in 1992, and we had to move from Santa Monica, Calif. to Tampa, Fla. to take care of her. She died in 1995. It's such a devastating illness on so many levels, and it involves extremely vigilant 24-hour care. My wife said she nearly lost her own mind trying to take care of her. I do a lot of puzzle contests, so I felt that a crossword contest to benefit Alzheimer's caregivers was a natural idea – you know, a thinking person's contest to help the thinking-impaired. We've done two such contests so far for the Alzheimer's Foundation of America. The next one is scheduled for later this year.
5. What career advice would you give students?
Do whatever you need to do to make money, that's a given. But also, and more importantly, do the thing that you seem to have been born to do, whether it earns money or not. If you're lucky, they're the same thing, but you have to do both. I moved to the L.A. area in 1979 to do music and screenwriting, until a friend said, "Everyone in L.A. is trying to do that, but no one makes crossword puzzles like you do." So I reevaluated everything and took his advice. Remember, no one ever turns 70, looks back on their life and says, "Gee, I wish I'd worked more."
6. Can you describe your crossword puzzle style in one word?
Not one, but three: "twisted, but fair." That's my motto. It's printed in all of my books.
7. You've been on “Oprah.” What was that experience like?
Amazing. She's not a puzzle fan, but she was extremely gracious. She's the real thing, down-to-earth and genuinely interested. The producers asked me to make a big O-shaped crossword – all about Oprah – which she and the audience then solved live on the show.
8. What is your favorite part of your job?
Thinking of themes, which are generally what the long answers are all about. I remember being in a department store and seeing a sign that said "Throw Rugs" and thought, "I hope some bratty kid doesn't take that literally," but then realized it would make a great theme. So the puzzle was about signs that you hope Junior won't take literally, with answers like “toss pillows,” “slit skirts” and “pocket calculators.”
9. Can you name one of your favorite clues?
In my neighborhood, as in a lot of neighborhoods, we have a Neighborhood
Watch program, with signs that say exactly those two words. I thought it could be something Tarzan might say: "So, Tarzan, how come you and Jane don't skinny-dip in the backyard anymore?" "Neighborhood watch."
10. What was your reaction to seeing yourself on “The Simpsons”?
I still haven't gotten over it. I've been a total cartoon fanatic my entire life, from early Warner Bros. cartoons to "The Simpsons," but I never thought I'd ever be in a cartoon. It's like a dream I never had that came true.
11. How do you judge a crossword puzzle tournament?
Mainly, you check people's papers. Once a puzzle round is over, all papers
are handed in and taken to the judges' room, where we sit and count how many answers are correct on each paper, and often, to decipher handwriting, since people are speed-solving. It has its fun moments, though, like last year when one of the trickier clues was "Person who walks in front of a train" and the intended punny answer was “bride.” One person's paper had the middle letter right, the “i,” but around it they had lightly penciled in the word “idiot.”