Patrick Merrell swears he's not trying to drive his legion of followers mad.
With crossword puzzles there is a fine line between entertainment and torment. Merrell should know. He's a crossword "constructor" who has been composing puzzles for the New York Times (a total of 86 including 20 Sundays)-- the world's leading puzzle institution-- since 2001. He also creates puzzles for the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, People, Sports Illustrated, and MAD magazines, Crayola, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the World Puzzle Championship, and many more.
Merrell has illustrated, designed, and or written over 300 books, including 60 puzzle books and is one of MAD’s “Usual Gang of Idiots.” Patrick and his wife Mary Dee moved from Mount Vernon, N. Y. to Vero Beach in July 2016 after visiting his wife's sister who has a home locally. The couple was intrigued by the small town lifestyle, the beaches, the parks and cultural scene, while Merrell regularly carves out time for thirty mile bike rides with the Vero Cycling Club.
Merrell's father Charlie was a financial manager with U. S. Steel which meant growing up in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and then Chatham, N. J. for his high school years. Both of his parents caught the crossword puzzle solving bug.
"My father would sit in his favorite armchair with his fried eggs with Worcestershire sauce, a cup of coffee and the Sunday New York Times crossword," Merrell recalls. "He loved wordplay. My mother June wasn't quite as serious. She was just exercising her brain."
Merrell graduated from Syracuse University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1978. After college he took a summer job in New York City and teamed up with a buddy to finish his first puzzle. It also is when he first experienced the agony of puzzle solving. The mental machinations of coming up with the answers to 4 down and 6 across, on the tip of your tongue, it just won't tumble out.
Highly addictive, crossword puzzles have been called mental yoga – both challenging and relaxing at the same time. Will Shortz, New York Times crossword editor, NPR puzzlemaster and Merrell's boss says good crosswords connect to everything in life.
“By solving puzzles we make order out of chaos and bring things to a conclusion, which is nice," Shortz reflects. "Solving crosswords eliminates worries. They make you a calmer and more focused person.”
Merrell submitted his first puzzle to the New York Times in 1992. He elected to forego the newspaper's strict policy of only receiving submissions from people who had at least three published puzzles.
"I gave it a shot," Merrell says with a laugh. "I got a standard rejection letter, but there was also a hand written note from editor Eugene Maleska asking to send more puzzles, so I took that as a good sign."
After setting aside his NYT puzzle crusade for a number of years, Merrell tried again and hit pay dirt in the spring of 2001 when Shortz accepted his puzzle that featured a "famous follies" theme.
"Will sent me a note, 'welcome to the club,'" Merrell remembers. "It was a huge thrill."
Sixteen years later Shortz is still singing Merrell's praises.
"Crossword constructing is a specialized skill, and Patrick has mastered it," Shortz observes. "He's smart, he knows words, and has wide-ranging knowledge, but he understands and empathizes with solvers, and most of all he has a clever twist of mind and a good sense of humor."
On an overcast Friday morning I visited Merrell on a quiet street in west Vero Beach. We headed into what I would call a puzzle den where he sits at a drafting table whipping batches of puzzles into shape. Puzzle memorabilia decorates the walls, reference puzzle books and magazines are stacked on shelves and there is a beguiling collection of puzzle objects.
"When I was in fourth grade I was into building these elaborate mazes and giving them to my friends to solve," recalls Merrell. "So, I guess that's where it all started."
So what's the biggest misconception about puzzle solvers?
"Crosswords have this reputation for being for older people and that's just not true," Merrell says. "These days there's lots of folks in their 20s and 30s working them and many of these folks do them online. One benefit of solving the NYT crossword online is that each puzzle is available the night before it appears in the newspaper."
Shortz says that when he started as the puzzle NYT editor in 1993, it was his goal to draw in a younger, more diverse audience. He succeeded. The percentage of online solvers is also growing versus print users.
"The general quality of crossword puzzles has markedly improved in the last few decades," Shortz explains. "Crosswords today are less bookish and more reflective of the language and culture of everyday life than they were in previous generations. I think this has helped attract younger solvers. The rise of computer culture has helped. Crosswords are a little nerdy, and a little nerdiness nowadays is actually cool."
According to the NYT, Monday through Thursday puzzles are always themed. Mondays have the most straightforward clues and are considered the easiest to solve. The Saturday crossword is actually the hardest puzzle of the week that involves more wordplay, more specialized knowledge, and the clues in general are more ambiguous. Contrary to popular belief, the Sunday puzzles are midweek difficulty, but they’re larger. Some later-week puzzle clues may require specialized knowledge.
NYT constructors earn $200 to $300 for a weekday puzzle and $1,000 if you land a coveted Sunday spot. Longtime constructors typically receive bonuses. There aren't any royalty checks that come in the mail, and unless your contract is structured otherwise, the publisher can resell your puzzles in a book.
Crossword puzzle making involves having a huge amount of data and synthesizing it into a grid.
"I'm in the zone, totally absorbed," Merrell says. "You're constantly adjusting. It's enjoyable, but it's hard work too. It gets taxing doing the research, writing the clues and you are readjusting the construction. You're pushing the envelope, trying to come up with a new, clever way to create something within the constraints."
To build a puzzle Merrell starts with a theme, creating several answers, then he puts in the black separation squares and fills in the rest of the answers.
"I would say it boils down to a minimum of a couple of days between refining the theme, constructing the grid and then researching clues and then tweaking them numerous times," Merrell explains. "But I’ve spent as much as a full week to put a NYT crossword together — not straight hours, but when you add all the time together."
Crossword puzzles are symmetrical.
"If you turn it upside down, you will discover a mirror image," Merrell says. "People that are really good solvers tend to be involved in math, computers and even music. It's like coding and decoding, and recognizing letter patterns-- seeing a few letters and running through your mind the possibility of words that could fit there. It's more than being an expert at language."
There are lots and lots of rules. Among them are grid size-- usually 15 by 15 for a daily paper, 21 by 21 for a Sunday puzzle-- minimum word length (three letters) and a ban on “unchecked letters." That means every square has to be part of two answers, across and down. Short words that are vowel-heavy are prized by puzzle makers.
On the other hand, sometimes the fun is in breaking the rules.
"I love it," says his editor Shortz. "But Patrick doesn't break the rules just for the sake of breaking the rules. He always has a purpose. Somehow Patrick adheres to the underlying order of crosswords while he twists and breaks their conventions."
Crossword puzzles date back to 1913, when British journalist Arthur Wynne published the first one in the now-defunct New York World. It was instantly popular with readers and became a newspaper staple — although the first crossword was arranged in a diamond, not a square, and was called a “word-cross. It evolved into a craze in 1924 when Simon & Schuster published the first crossword puzzle book. Wynne could never have ever imagined how crossword-crazy the world would become.
It used to be if you were making crosswords, you’d have a dictionary, a thesaurus, an almanac and possibly a word list. Today, software programs can expedite the filling process by recommending words drawn from a database. Like most top constructors, Merrell routinely fine tunes his lists of words, phrases and names. He estimates he has more than 100,000.
"Up until the early 2000's crosswords were all done by hand, then computer programs entered the game," Merrell says. "Databases have definitely improved the crossword quality. You can bring up a list of words that fits a particular space. It has streamlined the process. Makes it go a lot faster."
If there is one thing constructors agree on, the less obscure or hackneyed the clue, the better.
“Crosswords, like any art, should reflect life,” says Shortz, who reportedly owns the greatest collection of crossword ephemera in the world. “I’m looking for quality of the vocabulary, for words and phrases that are interesting, lively, and generally familiar, with as little obscurity and ‘crosswordese’ as possible.”
Constructors tend to battle it out whether it is acceptable to use reference works to solve puzzles. Many say no way. They want to elicit that "Aha! moment" that allows solvers to feel smart and recognize the cleverness that went into constructing the puzzle.
Both Merrell and Shortz disagree.
"It's supposed to be fun, not a test," Merrell insists. "If you just can't get something, go look it up. As Will likes to say, 'It's your puzzle. Do what you want.'"