A Talk With Richard Maltby

A Talk With Richard Maltby

Repunctuation of a clue is the key to its solution.


[First, three links:
• The current puzzle 
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines
• A Nation puzzle–solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints, and where every one of our clues is explained in detail.]

Richard Maltby Jr., the theatrical director and lyricist, has been constructing the variety cryptic crossword in Harper’s for thirty-seven years, and before that he constructed puzzles for New York magazine. This makes him one of the doyens of the US cryptic world. We asked him some questions by e-mail.

How did you get started as a cryptic crossword constructor?

Steve Sondheim introduced the puzzles to the US when New York magazine was started, in the 1960s. His puzzles were laid out to teach solvers. I became addicted, and once even contributed a guest puzzle. At the beginning, Steve did a puzzle a week. After a year he switched to one every three weeks, with Mary Ann Madden’s Competitions filling the other two slots. Then when Company was going into production, Steve announced he was stopping. I couldn’t bear the idea that the puzzles wouldn’t appear, so I asked if I could take them over. He and Clay Felker, the founder of New York, agreed. So I did, and the puzzles continued to appear every three weeks. But there was a Catch-22. Since I had constructed them, when the puzzles came out, I knew the answers. Which rather killed the fun.

You’ve worked both solo and with a collaborator. How do the two experiences compare?

I’ve never really collaborated on puzzles. When I got too busy to do the puzzles, Ed Galli took them over. Our names were both listed but he did the puzzles. He would then send the final to me and I would polish the clues, or the instructions, if I thought it was needed.

Is there a connection between cryptic crosswords and music? We are of course thinking of you and Stephen Sondheim. Moreover, one of us is a classical music critic.

I think there is a connection between cryptic puzzle and lyrics. Lyric writing involves the technical manipulation of language. You have to say what you want in exactly the right syllables and often with the accents or emphasis predetermined. Lyricists therefore become acutely aware of the intricacies of words, their multiple meanings, their diversity of definitions, pronunciations, spelling. We lyricists come to love the shorthand phrases that exist in English that can express a thought in fewer syllables.

It is also true that these cryptics can exist only in a language as rich as English. There is no “English” language. It is a series of layers: Anglo-Saxon, covered by Scandinavian, covered by French (the Normans), covered by Latin (the church), covered by Greek (the classicists), covered by words borrowed from Germany, Spain and the Arabic world (mathematics), and others borrowed from around the world as a result of British colonialism. That is why the language is so rich, complex, confusing, contradictory, baffling and delicious. No other language has the opportunities for puns and linguistic misdirection. In fact, that is probably why cryptic puzzles were invented: to make a game out of the mysteries and anomalies of our language.

What cryptic crosswords do you like to solve?

I do the London Times puzzles as they appear in the New York Post. This forces me to subscribe to that ridiculous right-wing rag. But that’s where the puzzles are.

Your puzzles are sometimes quite different from mainstream American cryptics, with respect for example to grid size, symmetry and cluing style. Is this something you’re aware of? What do you attribute it to?

There is a mainstream of American cryptics? Where?

I like that these puzzles have a puzzle within the puzzle. You solve the clues, but you then also have to solve the über-puzzle. Variety adds to the fun. I like to change the diagram shape, look, design—and change the way the clues appear. I also like that themed puzzles do not require a balanced diagram. They’d be less fun, in a theme sense, if the diagram had to be balanced. I do however, follow (mostly) the diagram rules established by the British constructor Ximenes: no unchecked letters in a three-letter word, only one unchecked letter in a four- or five-letter word, no more than two unchecked in a six- or seven-letter word, and so on with eight/nine, and ten/eleven letter words.

Tell us about your construction process.

I get the idea first. Fresh ideas seem to come as needed, although I have years of old puzzles with themes I often return to. The theme suggests a diagram: normal 12×12; larger/smaller/rectangular according to the longest words; an odd shape (heart or octagon). Then I see how the themed words can be arranged in the diagram, then I fill the diagram out with the remaining words. In choosing the entries, I look for unusual words, long words, fresh words—but finally there are always just words that fit what is needed.

What are some of your favorite Richard Maltby clues?

Here is one:
   The definitive manifestation of the human comedy is a crime (12)
and, in a down clue:
   Sign for and take $100 off vacation vehicle on beach (9)

We’ll post the answers in the comments in a few days. Thanks to Richard Maltby!

Do you solve Richard Maltby’s puzzles? The puzzles in the London Times? Please share here, along with any quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current Nation puzzle or any previous puzzle. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.

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