[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.