How I became a cryptic crossword writer for The Age and SMH

When & how did the cryptic crossword bug begin?


My cryptic tuition was familial, with my grandfather Eric introducing me when I was a tween. At 89, Eric’s still sharp as a tack, probably due in part to his daily dose of Age cryptic. My uncle Richard also spent a fair bit of time teaching me the ropes. And I was lucky enough to have a wonderful high school English teacher, Teresa Walta, who let me solve crosswords instead of doing schoolwork.

How long you been crafting your own stuff?

I was an OCD solver for years before I created my first primitive cryptic way back in 2003. It was a themed puzzle cobbled together as part of a 21st birthday card I made for a friend. Many years of hobby-clueing passed before I dared attempt an authentic 15x15 puzzle, and even then I had much to learn about modern compiler etiquette.

How does having a Monday puzzle slot influence your style, if at all?

I think the best way to structure a crossword roster is to make Mondays easy and get progressively harder throughout the week. The New York Times does this really well, and Fairfax (Nine!) sort of follows this pattern. With this in mind, I’ve tried to make my cryptics gentle, but it goes against my natural instincts. However I have a weekly newsletter called PuzzleMail where I make slightly more difficult puzzles exclusively for subscribers.

It was a long + winding road before your Fairfax debut. Sketch your pilgrimage –

I distinctly remember the moment that I realised cryptic clueing was a high art. I was sitting on my porch in Moonee Ponds and I circled this DA clue: Web novel? He penned it (1,1,5). If you google it, you’ll see that the forums were awash with debate about the clue’s merits at the time. But for mine it was unquestionably gold. I was at university, and it was around this time that I submitted an essay to my English professor earnestly comparing cryptic crosswords to great works of poetry.

Later, I managed to get a job helping to collate the Fairfax puzzles pages, and happened to strike up a friendship (via correspondence) with the man himself! Generously, DA gave up some of his time to show me the deeper secrets of the craft, including the lesser known rules of grid construction and finer points of clue cooking. I was studying, solving and striving for a slot ever since, and was stoked to get the gig at Fairfax.

And what’s been the biggest lesson en route – aside from patience is a virtue?!

“You can’t please everyone”

What was the 1-across clue in your first ever cryptic puzzle?

See if you can work it out:

  • Had a tennis surface sense (Jan 16 being Day 1 of the Oz Open)

  • Was an anagram

  • Solution related to welcoming someone important (hehe)

  • Solution contains LR

You’re a cartoonist too, with LRtoons. Tell us about your drawing bug.

I taught myself to draw by plagiarising Far Side characters. In fact, I was so eager to channel Gary Larson that most of my early cartoons were about ducks and cows. Eventually I realised I needed to develop my own style, so I started drawing the noses differently. Coming up with ideas for cartoons is a very effective way to fight insomnia.

Three things about yourself, one of which is a lie.

  1. I have a metal plate in my face.

  2. I had a small speaking role in The Honourable Wally Norman (2003).

  3. I once witnessed a shooting in Harlem.

Special topic on Einstein Factor?

Futurama or Britpop.

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