At a tiny table in a noisy Harvard Square cafe, Brendan Emmett Quigley '96 is narrating an act of creation. Head bowed, pencil moving restlessly across squares of graph paper, he intones what sounds like the muted voiceover for a documentary. The plot summary might go like this: UNH English grad, refusing to abandon his passions, cobbles together a living as a rock guitarist and nationally known constructor of crossword puzzles.
On the table, Quigley has neatly aligned four sharpened pencils and two fat pink erasers. He has cleared space by loading into his backpack the huge, meticulously maintained green scrapbook of his published work--puzzles that appeared in the New York Times, New York Sun, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Games magazine and elsewhere. Now he is ready to construct.
He prints HARRIGAN, in his guest's honor, in the squares at the top of the graph paper and then, aligned directly below it, ONE ON ONE.
Even as the voice muses, "Let's see if we can think of another eight-letter word," the pencil is adding RICHARD I below the first two.
"This is raw, improvisational construction," he says. "I'm designing the pattern as I'm going." Usually he starts a puzzle by mapping out a symmetrical pattern of black and white squares, then filling in the words. Today he's doing the opposite. His voice trails off, then picks up again as the pencil moves on.
"Why don't we do something fun?" Descending from the A in HARRIGAN, he checks out the next two letters, N-D, and quickly prints AND I QUOTE.
"Yes! Great entry--something everyone says but no one really notices."
The process continues this way for 20 minutes, pencil and eraser and voice racing each other up and down and sideways, brain plotting ahead more sequences and combinations than the average one-track mind can conceive. "What if I...?" he wonders. "No, but then that would..."
An -ILL ("Bill Blass?") suddenly takes its place in the grid as GILLIGAN, followed by AT MOST and ST THOMAS and US STEEL.
Quickly, intersecting the T in AND I QUOTE, the pencil adds MRS WHITE. "Is that a character in Clue? I hope so--look at all those consonants! Kind of wild."
Finally, when it's time for his visitor to leave, Quigley shakes off creation fever and sits up, his red-tan glasses glinting beneath wavy red-tan hair. "Wow," he says almost breathlessly, surveying his work with surprise. "This is making me look far more amazing than I actually am."
The hundreds of passionate solvers who frequent the online Crossword Forum of the New York Times would beg to differ. They find BEQ, as they call Quigley (and "a BEQ," as they call any one of his puzzles), plenty amazing.
"He's not the youngest writer of crosswords for the Times, but he's probably the hippest," say Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon, who moderate the online forum. "His vocabulary is spiced with up-to-date slang and popular lore that adds crackle and challenge to the usual crossword."
"It's the quality of the vocabulary above all," says Will Shortz, the Times puzzle editor, famous for his weekly appearances on National Public Radio. He especially praises Quigley's "interesting, familiar phrases from real life," such as AND I QUOTE or, Shortz's favorite, WHY YOU LITTLE . . . (clued as "Angry parent's yell"). When St. Martin's Press wanted to publish a series of books featuring puzzles by "superstar" Times constructors, Shortz suggested Quigley as the sole author of Volume I, due out this year.
Quigley, in turn, calls Shortz "the master, the mentor; who better to learn from?" Though the Times pays less than other publications ($350 for a Sunday puzzle and $100 for a daily, which can take five hours to construct), Quigley still sells Shortz as many puzzles as he can. The Times, after all, is not just the credential with clout but the place that gave him his first break.In the spring of 1996, a month before Quigley graduated from UNH, Shortz bought his first BEQ--in fact, the first puzzle Quigley had dared to send anywhere.
Shortz recalls enjoying the puzzle's theme of familiar phrases ending in dog's names: RANGE ROVER. X MARKS THE SPOT. OEDIPUS REX. The "non-theme" entries included ZIMA ("Coors drink advertised as 'zomething different'"), which clued Shortz that the constructor was young.
Quigley credits that first sale to dumb luck. Always "a puzzle thinker," he remembers drawing elaborate mazes in grade school when other boys were drawing tanks and guns, but he didn't get hooked on crosswords until college, when a summer "slacker job" photocopying documents left him desperate for distraction. By fall, his parents were mailing him a pile of Times crosswords every week and he was using a book to study construction strategy.
The key to lively puzzles, Quigley says, is "taking a step back to look at the world in a weird way." For him, the offbeat outlook comes naturally. His memories of UNH center on performing with the improv troupe TheatreSports and running a 1995 campaign for student body president that he describes as "a post-humor parody of the whole situation." His ticket's motto: "We make the other candidates look legit."
The way Quigley sees it, he's tried legit and transcended it. After getting laid off from three consecutive jobs in publishing--his final job, as a fact checker, ended two years ago when the magazine folded--he decided to dump the regular-paycheck concept and pledge himself to what had been his part-time passions: puzzles and music. "Both are all math and all relationships; they're about arrangement and how things work together," he says. "They're a collage of disparate elements that combine to..." He stops and laughs. "Does this sound too NPR?"
By day he edits crossword puzzle books and constructs puzzles--sometimes at a frenzied pace, now that paying the rent depends on it. By night he practices or plays gigs with his band, Hip Tanaka, a version of Theatre Sports set to music. On any given night, band members might raffle off shampoo, perform wearing backpacks or studiously ignore the guy grilling hamburgers onstage and distributing them to the audience.
"I love music," he says, "but it would be deranged to expect to make a living at it. C'mon, we're pushing 30, and rock is just not popular."
So he sets himself more obscure challenges: Squeezing as many rock-band names as possible into mainstream puzzles (he's especially proud of WEEZER and BAHA MEN). Trying to be first to incorporate pop-culture references (he missed Monica Lewinsky and Harry Potter but beat the field to NAPSTER and PC CLONE). Aiming for a record: fewest black squares in a puzzle, or most stacked 15-letter words or fewest entries in a 15-by-15 grid (the record low is 54 words; Quigley's best is 64).
Within the devoted constellation of cruciverbalists (crossword enthusiasts), such things matter. And in that constellation, Quigley is an established star. He dresses casually and lives simply yet he maintains his green scrapbook like a shrine. Each published puzzle is mounted with precise symmetry on a spotless white page sealed in pristine plastic. Any lint or crumb that dares defile the arrangement is instantly whisked away.
Constructing puzzles is, he acknowledges, a bit of an odd way to make a living. But not that odd. "All my friends are creative. They say, 'This is a painting I did, or a poem or a play I wrote.' Well, these are what I do," he says, turning scrapbook pages. Point to any puzzle, any individual clue, and he can narrate with specificity where the idea came from. He's doing this in the cafe when, with a curse, the guy at the next table knocks over a huge cup of coffee.
"This is my life's work," Quigley says, inching his chair away. "It's the only thing people will fight over when I die." And he curves himself around the scrapbook, shielding it from flying liquids and the indignities of the workaday world. ~
Jane Harrigan, a professor of journalism at UNH, is a former managing editor of the Concord Monitor and the author of two books, Read All About It and The Editorial Eye.
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