I had the good fortune this week to be interviewed by Puzzle Nation! Contrary to the headline, I’ve never thought of myself as a crossword “pro” – more like a puzzle fiend, which is why it was so gratifying to share my thoughts with like-minded people. Below are the answers to the 5 Questions that I was asked. Or, in other words: Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Crossword Kathy* (But Were Afraid To Ask).
1.) How did you get started with puzzles?
The short answer is that I’ve been solving crossword puzzles since junior high, when a friend intent on winning the school’s magazine drive gave me a subscription to Games Magazine as a birthday present. (The editor of Games back then? Will Shortz.)
But I should add that I come from a family of puzzlers. My mom and stepdad solve every puzzle the L.A. Times has to offer on any given day – crosswords, cryptograms, Jumbles, sudokus. When I was a kid, my grandpa would write me letters and include some scrambled words at the bottom; I would figure them out and send him back a few as well. And my dad and I would try to solve a daily newspaper crossword together on our weekly trips to a local coffee shop.
One distinct memory from those days: I filled in the word DIRT as the answer for “Seed covering,” only to have my dad gently correct it to ARIL, which he said was a pretty standard entry for that clue. I was baffled. Who on earth would know the word ARIL? So as an adult, when I heard Will Shortz was trying to take the crosswordese out of crosswords, I knew exactly what that meant. And I thought it was great.
2.) Your analyses of each Times crossword are not only thoughtful and accessible, they’re also very funny at times. Is there a balance you try to strike with each puzzle’s breakdown?
I’m so flattered that you think my posts are funny! I’m not a comedian by any stretch, but I hope my blog is lively and entertaining. I guess it’s just not that much fun to publish only a list of answers or a finished grid. Also, I think solvers are more likely to appreciate the craft of crossword construction if you can help them understand a challenging theme, or commiserate with them over an esoteric answer.
Puzzlers, by their nature, like to learn new things, so I try to add interesting links to current events. And frequent readers know I always look for a way to give a shout-out to my adopted hometown of Philly, one of the most underrated cities in the world. Sure, we have our problems -– including a terrible baseball and football team right now -– but it is a tremendously vibrant, beautiful and historic place.
3.) We’re closing in on the one-hundredth anniversary of the crossword. What, in your estimation, gives crosswords such long-lasting appeal? Do you think the crossword’s bicentennial will garner equal interest?
I think crosswords are still around because they’ve evolved. If they were still constructed the way they were back then, I’m not sure how many people would be interested. Themes, rebuses, clever wordplay and complex puzzles-within-puzzles (like the recent grid in Braille!) are what keep me coming back. I certainly hope crosswords will still be around in another hundred years. People still play cards, and those have been around for centuries, right?
4.) What’s next for Kathy Matheson (and Crossword Kathy)?
Well, I’ve been trying my hand at constructing. So far, my aspirations for a NYT crossword byline have been crushed by the very exacting standards of Will Shortz -– though he was extremely nice in his rejections. One puzzle didn’t meet the technical parameters (the word count was too high), and the other had a theme too similar to one that he ran a few years ago. So… I will soldier on. I have a couple of half-finished grids that I just can’t seem to make work. Turns out it takes a lot longer to build a crossword than it does to solve it. Who knew?
5.) If you could give the readers, writers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?
Keep solving! Just because one puzzle was frustrating doesn’t mean the next one will be. You never know when the subject might involve your area of expertise. Eventually, things will click. Here’s a confession: I still struggle mightily with British (cryptic) crosswords. But I’m able to solve a lot more clues today than I did a couple of years ago.