Evan Birnholz, 32, is a crossword constructor whose puzzles begin running in the Magazine today (Page 35), replacing the late Merl Reagle. Birnholz lives with his wife in Philadelphia and has a B.A. in chemistry and a master’s in public health and was a PhD student studying prison history before abandoning academic life for crosswords. He started building them in 2009 and shares them on his Web site, www.devilcross.com.
If you’re not good at crosswords, does that mean you’re not smart?
[Laughs.] No, not at all. Honestly, it’s just one of those things that you just have to practice to get better at it. There’s no reason why someone who maybe doesn’t consider themselves a brainiac can’t do well.
That makes me feel better. Why did you start writing crosswords?
Crosswords are a lot like composing music. When I was younger I played the piano, and when I was in college I sang in an a cappella group and I arranged a lot of their music. A piece of music has a time signature, it has a rhythm, it has a key signature, a chord progression. And if you change any single one of those, it changes the mood of the song. It’s the same thing with crosswords. They’re two different art forms with two different canvases.
How long does it take you to do the Sunday crossword in that New York paper that rhymes with “limes”?
If it’s an easy Sunday crossword, I can do it in under 20 minutes. A tougher one, 25 to 30. Over 30, it’s usually pretty challenging for me. But now I’m afraid that if I ever get shown on camera solving the puzzle and it takes me 40 or 50, everyone will say, “Oh, he’s not as good as he thought he was.”
What’s your top goal when you’re writing a puzzle?
I’m hoping to create something people will enjoy. I do whatever I can to avoid those short little bad entries that no one really uses anywhere except in crosswords. Like SSS is common as the sound a tire makes when it’s leaking air. And I don’t use that kind of entry. It’s a personal aesthetic. I want people to have fun with the puzzle and, when things click, for them to say, “Oh, that was clever.”
Is it worse to make your puzzles too easy or too hard?
It’s actually very easy to make a puzzle that’s impossible because if you have a bunch of crossings or obscure things that people aren’t going to know, that’s a surefire way to get people to no longer want to solve you. Elite solvers want to have something meaty that they can wrap their brains around. But if a puzzle is done very well, even if it’s an easy idea, anybody can appreciate it.
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