Words excite David Ben-Merre. At 34, the assistant professor is in his fifth year teaching English at Buffalo State College with a course list that this semester includes literary theory, British modernism and scholarly research.
Ben-Merre grew up in the Bronx, and recalled hours spent with his father solving crossword puzzles. Years later as a student studying literature at Brown University, Ben-Merre decided to construct them.
On Jan. 9, the New York Times published one of his puzzles.
People Talk: What is the pay scale for crossword puzzles?
David Ben-Merre: For the New York Times, it’s $200 for a weekday and $1,000 for Sunday. This is sort of a new thing. Crossword puzzles didn’t used to pay that much, but (Times crossword editor) Will Shortz upped the payment, as did Peter Gordon of the New York Sun.
PT: Will Shortz is a puzzle god.
DB: Will Shortz liked my puzzle. He liked the theme. He asked me for one revision, to come up with one different theme answer. It sounds easy, like adding a comma, but when you change just one entry it’s almost like doing a whole new puzzle. He was right; the answer was forced.
PT: Does Shortz have a backlog of puzzles?
DB: Yes. He has a lot of accepted puzzles waiting to come out. He slated mine for Wednesday, but he was backed up 10 or 11 months for Wednesdays.
PT: How finicky are crossword puzzle editors?
DB: There is a maximum number of words certain editors would want in a puzzle. Eighty words would be too many for the New York Times. They want around 76. Some want a maximum number of black squares in puzzles. Some like tight grids with not a lot of filler – the typical words you see in puzzles – the four-letter word with three vowels, like “ogee.”
It’s a very weird, accidental genre of language. For example, it will never matter who won the 1997 National League MVP Award in baseball. It will matter who won the 1998 award. That was [Sammy] Sosa, a popular puzzle answer.
PT: Tell me about the Times puzzles.
DB: Monday through Thursday in the Times are generally themed, with Thursday’s clues more difficult to solve than Monday’s. For example, if the answer is “octopus”: On Monday the clue might be “aquarium sight.” On Wednesday the clue might be “ink dispenser.” On Friday the clue might be (and this was an actual one) “Army threat” as in an arm-y (tentacled) threat.
PT: What was the theme of your Times puzzle?
DB: Phrases that can mean opposite things at once. I had six theme answers. One was: “Did or didn’t perform a New Year’s ceremony.” The answer was “drop the ball.”
PT: What are some crossword construction quirks?
DB: I was fascinated by the grids, but I found there were a lot of rules you just don’t realize. It’s easier to have a 12-letter answer than 14. Some of the great crossword constructors will try and make a picture with the black squares.
PT: What puzzles turn your head?
DB: The British crosswords are exponentially more difficult than American ones. They’re cryptographic, so the clues aren’t synonyms, the clues are almost riddles. You’ll sit there for hours trying to figure them out. The Saturday puzzle for the Times is the most difficult. You learn new words, you’ll fill them in and still not know what they mean.
PT: Do you have an expansive vocabulary?
DB: Slightly, yes, being an English teacher and learning new words through crossword.
PT: What is your last new word?
DB: Aar, an “Alpine stream.” A lot of them are like Cambodian currency [riel], and they’re used as filler. When you see it two or three times, then you will start to remember it. It’s like playing Scrabble and learning two-letter words, but you can’t have a two-letter word in crossword. Always three or more.
PT: What’s your favorite three-letter word?
DB: Oh God. My favorite three-letter crossword word is probably eek (pronounced ache), as in the archaic sense of “also,” not as in the contemporary sense of “Oh my god there’s a mouse!”
PT: You should write headlines.
DB: I pride myself on puns. The groan-to-speech ratio is great.
PT: What has been the crossword industry’s golden moment?
DB: One of them – Shortz’s favorite crossword of all time – was constructed by Jeremiah Farrell and published on Election Day 1996. The middle answer was “lead story tomorrow.” You could either fit in “Bob Dole elected” or “Clinton elected.” Both answers worked. It was crazy.
PT: What’s the latest innovation in the crossword industry?
DB: Oh goodness. It’s such a sort of old-fashioned, breakfast and coffee on a Sunday morning sit with your glasses and read. A lot of people do them online now. I haven’t yet. I like the folding and opening, the crinkly aspects. When I teach, I like the book in my hand. Online crossword puzzles come out earlier. You can do the Times Wednesday puzzle on Tuesday night.
PT: How long does it take you to construct a puzzle?
DB: A full day, maybe 10 hours. It can be very addictive. There are three parts: First you come up with themes. Then symmetry – for every 12-letter answer, make sure you have another 12-letter answer. And then you build a grid around it, which takes up a lot of time. It’s a lot of trial and error. When you have an acceptable answer list, you begin building clues.
PT: Do you live for crosswords?
DB: It’s more of a hobby. I go hours sometimes without thinking of crosswords. It’s an investment in language, much like literature.
PT: What’s the last book you’ve read?
DB: Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding.” It’s baseball and “Moby Dick” and academia all in one.