Jim Quinlan lives in Westtown, New York in the Hudson Valley. He teaches high school English in Goshen where he also directs plays and musicals. In addition to being an avid solver and occasional puzzle constructor, he plays piano (as an accompanist and solo performer) and he is a cyclist who has traversed extremely long distances. In his words, he has “never seen ‘Star Wars’ and knows embarrassingly little about sports.”
In February 2017, Jim joined the team at the blog, Diary of a Crossword Fiend, which reviews puzzles from several different publications (including this one). In November of that year, he started reviewing my crosswords, and he did so almost every week for the next five years. He approached every review with fairness, good humor and a kind spirit, and I couldn’t wait to read them. What I appreciated most from his write-ups was that he often noted enjoying the chance to solve puzzles of varying themes and difficulties. As he colorfully put it this past April, “I’d rather have a scoop of something crazy once in a while than week after week of vanilla.” That has been key to my own values as a crossword constructor, and Jim’s insights and enthusiasm were real gifts that I believe have helped me grow and become better at my work.
Jim has constructed puzzles for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Universal Crossword. In late 2014, he and I made a collaborative crossword for my old website Devil Cross that we called “Wasted Time.” It was a strange puzzle, featuring an odd grid and even odder theme answers. It’s one of the very few published co-constructed puzzles I’ve ever worked on, and I still have fun memories of building it.
After five years of blogging at Crossword Fiend, Jim announced on Aug. 28 that he would be stepping down as a member of their blogging team. He generously volunteered his time and effort to providing a spotlight for my puzzles, so I wanted to give him a spotlight of his own.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Evan: How did you originally get involved with Diary of a Crossword Fiend and what drew you to analyzing puzzles in further detail?
Jim: Long before I wrote my first post for Crossword Fiend, I had seen a pitch from Stanley Newman, who edits and often constructs for Newsday, asking if anyone was interested in blogging about his publication’s puzzles. At the time, I was solving as many puzzles as I could get my hands on and I was beginning to construct them myself. I figured writing about puzzles and analyzing them might help me to understand the construction process better. That particular pitch, however, was posted long before I had stumbled on it, and the position was not available. But the blogging seed had been planted so I sent an email to Amy Reynaldo, who manages Fiend, offering to fill in as a substitute blogger should she need anyone. It wasn’t until several years later that she took me up on it.
Evan: Did blogging about crosswords each week influence your work as a teacher, and if so, how? Like did your analysis of puzzles feel similar to how you would grade students’ assignments, did you ever incorporate puzzles or even just modes of thinking about crosswords into lesson plans, have any of your students become interested in puzzles themselves, etc.?
Jim: Blogging about crosswords is very humbling, at least for me. It’s a very sensitive thing, to be writing about someone’s work, especially when a constructor has put heart and soul and an incredible amount of time into a puzzle that may only take a couple minutes for a competitive solver to complete. On more than a few occasions, my tone came across more negatively than I’d intended, or I’d focus solely on things that personally bothered me about a puzzle. If I was rushed, or in a bad mood, or tired, that might unintentionally affect how I assessed a puzzle, which is, of course, unfair. On the bright side, Fiend welcomes a dialogue, and commenters are not shy about challenging bloggers’ opinions. And most of the time, they are rational, well-thought out challenges. I take critiques of my critiques very seriously, especially from a community I truly respect. I’m not always right. To the contrary, I’m frequently wrong. I like to think that blogging and engaging in dialogue has helped me to become more introspective and see myself as fallible.
When it comes to school, I’ve always tried to avoid the I’m-The-Teacher-Therefore-I’m-Always-Right mind-set. Almost all of the teachers I know try to avoid that. But I’m not sure we always succeed. I believe that I’m much more sensitive now to the manner in which I give feedback than I was a decade ago. Just because I see similar themes again and again, each student’s work is still an individual effort, and it is unique to that student, and that student should be rightfully proud of it. You can substitute the word “student” in that last sentence with “constructor” and it is just as valid.
Evan: Do you have a particular favorite puzzle that you’ve constructed?
Jim: My favorite puzzles that I have constructed have not been for publication. They’ve been for friends. One set of puzzles in particular led a friend on a bit of a scavenger hunt for her birthday. I made five mini puzzles and each had a meta answer. It would lead her to a location to find the next puzzle. And they collectively had an overall meta answer for her to solve to discover what her birthday present was. That was so much fun. I make them for my colleagues and occasionally have contests at school. I make them for the school newspaper. While it’s really cool to see your own work in major publications, the submission process alone is incredibly time consuming and laborious, and for me, that can take a big chunk of the fun out of it.
I was extremely lucky that the first puzzle I ever constructed was accepted by the New York Times. I mistakenly thought it would be that easy every time. Nope. Not even close. And about that puzzle, it was panned by Amy Reynaldo at Fiend before I started writing for that site. The bad reviews (hers wasn’t the only one) stung for a little while. But in actuality, I ended up appreciating the constructive criticism. I think it’s important to embrace feedback, even when it’s not the feedback you were hoping for.
Evan: I want to ask about your work as a musician. I remember you had mentioned to me that you would sometimes solve crosswords while you were waiting to play the piano during high school musicals. I’m pretty amazed by this because I used to play classical piano before I took up crosswords as a hobby, and every time I had a recital, I was a nervous wreck and couldn’t focus on anything else except getting ready to perform. First, did you ever solve puzzles during the actual performance, or was it only during rehearsals? And second, how were you able to stay relaxed to solve crosswords while the musical was happening?
Jim: Ha! The only puzzles I’ve ever “solved” during an actual performance have been Matt Gaffney’s meta puzzles. That’s because it’s often more of a thought exercise once the grid is filled in. I’m likely to miss a cue if I’m focused on anything other than the performance. Multitasking isn’t my thing. Besides, it would be rather unprofessional for an audience to see the accompanist filling in a grid, say, right before Javert jumps to his death in “Les Misérables.” I do really need to focus on the production. Rehearsals, though, are another story. I always need something to do. Otherwise I’m the type who is going to want to start fixing the staging and start stepping on the director’s shoes, which is decidedly not the role of an accompanist. Solving crosswords makes me behave.
Also, many people have come over during rehearsal breaks to help with a solve. It’s so much fun. There’s been many times where a whole cast gets involved and I end up bringing a bunch of copies of crosswords. Cast members huddle together and solve backstage. The entire orchestra pit gets involved before a show or during intermission. It’s become an expectation that I show up, puzzles in hand.
Evan: How has your life as a musician inspired your own work as a crossword solver and constructor?
Jim: I’m not so sure it has! Although I’m an English teacher, I actually think I’m better at math. I notice a lot of musicians are quite good at math. And from what I’ve noticed, a lot of math people are very drawn to crosswords. So maybe they’re all correlated somehow? I did have an idea to construct a puzzle with a “crescendo” theme, but I couldn’t get it to work and I never revisited it. I’ve got a bunch of puzzles in the one-day-I’ll-get-back-to-that pile.
(Note from Evan: Jim did once construct a Sunday puzzle for the LA Times called “Slightly Off Broadway,” so I’d say his work as a musician did shine through in his crosswords!)
Evan: You’ve been an avid cyclist for several years. You also blogged for a long time about your cross-country biking adventures at The Green Saddle. How did you get involved with that?
Jim: I’m no athlete. Not by a long shot. But for some reason, I absolutely love long-distance cycling. It was something my father instilled in me at a young age when we would go on a long trip on a tandem bicycle. Around Ireland once. Up to Niagara Falls. Down the East Coast.
One summer, when I got back from one of those tours, I entered a local race. It was about sixty miles or so. I never finished that race because somewhere around mile 40, I ran a stop sign and was hit by an oncoming vehicle. It’s quite remarkable that I survived (helmets are very useful) and even more remarkable that I was relatively unscathed. Nonetheless, I gave up road cycling then and there. Twenty years later, my father suddenly fell ill with pancreatic cancer and he passed within months of his diagnosis. He had always talked about wanting to cycle across the United States, coast to coast, and I promised him we would do it. So I got back on a bike and did it the following summer after his death. I went solo, but I never felt alone. I blogged about the experience day by day, and I’ve blogged about subsequent trips. It’s a blast to do that. Sometimes you don’t realize just how hilarious, wondrous, difficult or frustrating something is until you write about it.
Evan: Did you get to solve puzzles regularly while you were on your biking trips? Or did you go … completely off the grid?
Jim: Yes, I solved at least one crossword every day. I’m always looking for an excuse to take a break. I even constructed one while I was waiting for a repair.
Evan: To borrow from Andrew Kingsley’s regular question during Boswords interviews, do you have a happiest crossword memory?
Jim: My happiest crossword memories all involve introducing people to crosswords. As a teacher, I get to do that a lot. When I was teaching middle school, I used to project the Friday NYT themeless puzzle during study hall. You’d be shocked at how well a group of seventh-grade kids can collectively solve a difficult puzzle with little experience.
Now, at the high school level, my room is never empty during the four periods when I am not teaching. They come there to solve crossword puzzles together. It’s extremely welcoming, and with a well-clued puzzle, everyone and anyone can bring something to the table. Students who might be shy or have difficulty fitting in have found their “friend groups” in my room simply because of crossword puzzles. And this happens again and again and again, year after year. I get to see students’ first aha moments, even when it’s due to a simple letter substitution theme. This past summer, four newly graduated students and I rafted down the Delaware River together as a last “hurrah” before they went off to college. Oddly enough, that never would’ve happened were it not for crosswords. They became friends in my room, solving together. How cool is that?
Thanks for giving us your time, Jim!
Now, here’s the solution to the Sept. 18 Post Magazine puzzle “In Other Words.”
Three phrases have pairs of circled words, and these circled words are described by the synonyms in three separate revealer answers:
- 17A: [North, south, east and west] is CARDINAL DIRECTIONS. The circled DIN and IRE are described by “THE SOUND AND THE FURY” at 38A: [1929 novel by William Faulkner, or a hint to 17 Across’s circled words].
- 46A: [Pine Tree State town with the same name as a European capital] is PARIS, MAINE. The circled PA and MAIN are described by “THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA” at 64A: [1952 novella by Ernest Hemingway, or a hint to 46 Across’s circled words].
- 83A: [Diner dish served in the morning] is BREAKFAST PLATE. The circled FAST and LATE are described by “THE QUICK AND THE DEAD” at 95A: [1995 western starring Sharon Stone and Gene Hackman, or a hint to 83 Across’s circled words].
This is a spiritual successor to a previous puzzle of mine from May 2019 called “This and That.” That puzzle had a similar theme but used revealers with the format “X and Y,” where today’s puzzle it was “The X and the Y.”
Finally, although I got to interview Jim for this blog post, I couldn’t resist throwing another friend of mine from the crossword world into this puzzle. 102D: [Wall Street Journal language columnist Zimmer] is BEN Zimmer. I’ve gotten to chat with Ben at various crossword tournaments over the years; he’s not only incredibly knowledgeable about the origins of words and phrases, but quite the nice and personable fellow. In addition to all of the impressive work he does as language columnist, Ben contributes essays for the word blog “Beyond Wordplay,” he makes frequent appearances on the crossword podcast “Fill Me In” (where he’s been given the nickname “The Barnacle”) and he has constructed crosswords for various outlets, too.