Meet the arch riddler of Kew and have a poke around his office...
Stale, slate, as, lets, seal, steal… there are many ways to dissect an Astle, but David could do it much better than us. The self-confessed ‘wordaholic’ was known only as the mysterious ‘DA’ (or ‘Don’t Attempt’) on The Age’s cryptic crossword page for 24 years, before he revealed his identity in 2010 with the publication of his memoir, Puzzled. His latest book, Cluetopia, makes the 100-year-old crossword itself the star. Time Out goes to Kew to riffle through his study.
David, can you tell us a bit about your latest book, Cluetopia (Allen & Unwin, 2013)?
Basically, we had the centenary of the crossword coming up in December 2013 and I thought the crossword deserved a book. I thought, “Why don’t I put together 100 little chapters where every chapter is a year along that century timeline?” I spent the best part of six months delving and ferreting around archives and the world’s libraries, and bugging a whole lot of people – just trying to find amazing crosswords around the world in any particular year and mapping it all out. I found some amazing stories, like how a murder was solved because of a crossword; how there was a hoax crossword in The Times; and the Crossword Strike of 1978 on the Glaswegian wharves. It wasn’t about looking at cute clues; it was looking for the scandals, the stuff-ups, the people and the heartbeat behind the puzzle. It was a massive folly of a thing and great to finish!
Do you think there’s been a peak of popularity of the crossword?
I think it’s peaking now and there’s no sign of it plateauing, either. It seems to be not just du jour but in demand across generations. Obviously, for those who want to remain active-minded in their later years, there’s a real proven benefit; but there are plenty of teenagers and 20-year-olds who are finding the fun of crosswords, because suddenly it’s OK to be mischievous with language, and it’s very fashionable to make havoc with words, whether it’s street art or Twitter or texting. It just fits into that zeitgeist.
This is an age where we’re losing print media. Do you think it translates well enough to the digital realm?
It does, it translates very well. Even though most people – and I’m in this group – don’t like solving crosswords on screen, so long as you can download it and you have some kind of physical printout… Most newspapers and a lot of websites offer crosswords as online benefits with a download option. Plus, things like blogs and websites and chatrooms are really boosting the genre too, because you can meet fellow solvers and bitch and moan and celebrate and compare notes… so it’s created these little tribes as well.
Are you the subject of any threads?
Oh yeah, there’s a whole website dedicated to my stuff that just rages along every Friday. I don’t haunt the place because I feel as though it would be a) rude, and b) can be sometimes a little crestfalling to see what people are saying about you. But it’s really wonderful that your work is getting essayed and enjoyed and examined.
You’ve written fiction, non-fiction, stage plays, crosswords… How do you put on different hats when you’re your office?
Having a large desk really helps that. I do have stacks, the stacks are my hats. And I’m grateful for the hats because it means that when I feel as though I’m spinning in my tracks on one particular task, it’s really refreshing to be able to just change tracks and go off into a different mindset. I try and save my creative stuff to the morning, and the creative stuff for me is fiction, column writing and clue writing. In the afternoon, when my energy levels are still good, but my creative levels can sometimes be a little wayward, I’ll do the more mechanical side of things.
What’s the column writing?
It’s crazy, but only the Sydney Morning Herald has this Word column that I’ve done every week for five years. I’ve been pushing for The Age to pick it up.
Your book Puzzled: Secrets and Clues from a Life Lost in Words (Allen & Unwin, 2010) was part memoir, part exposé of the mechanics of crosswords. Was that like breaking the magician’s code?
I did feel like I was coming out of the closet with that one. For years, I have been living in notoriety and anonymity, as ‘DA’ and also as a writer, David Astle. It was the Peter Parker/Spiderman thing – or, as I like to think about it, as the Riddler, who was my hero. Forget Batman – he was overrated. I felt as though that was my role, and not to take off the mask and say, “Hey, I’m actually Frank Gorshin trying to earn a dollar.”
But then it just so happened around about 2010 – I’d been at it for almost 30 years, and I still love doing it, so I thought, “It’s time to write a book about it and share the mania.” It coincided with [SBS show] Letters and Numbers by complete fluke, and so that 18-month phase of my life threw me out of the bedroom office into the world as being the word nerd that I truly am.
Is it really hard not to repeat your favourite turns-of-phrase in your clues?
Great question, and it is hard – words come into play a lot that you’ve chosen in the past because they have unique patterns, and therefore only that word will fit. A word like ‘igloo’ or ‘inapt’ – these words keep cropping up because they have this very strange distribution of letters, so you’ve got to bring something fresh to a very familiar, or very pre-digested word with some pizazz. So finding the pizazz in the familiar, or the secret, or fresh in the familiar is the real challenge.
Do you tend to get the same comments made at dinner parties all the time?
The question I always get – and it’s like when you see a work of art — is, “How long did that take you?” I find that a really facile question, because it’s really hard to measure. Things percolate. I will put together the interlock in an hour, and then I will just stew, and think, and refine and finesse. But it’s amazing just how many people have a relationship with the crossword, whether it’s them, or their mum, or their grandma, or their mates at work. It’s like – “Oh, you’re that guy?” I was reluctant in the past to blurt out what I do, but now it seems that decision is taken out of my hands.
Do you get people offering you clues and advice?
Yeah, particularly themes. One of the best themes I had was from a guy who ran a hotel and we drove in late at night and it was lashing rain, and the guy said, “I thought it was you when I saw your name on the booking. I’ve got this amazing theme idea for you.” It actually turned out a really good idea! He said, “Why don’t you write the instructions at the beginning of the crossword, and all the words in the instructions are actually the answers?” I thought, “That’s diabolical!” It was hard to give him a credit at the bottom of the grid, but I did ring him and tell him his genius idea was coming out.
Do you come up with a random interlock grid first, before you dream up the clues?
Yeah, you do. You start off very old school. You start off with your graph paper and draw up your 15 by 15. Then, over the weeks and days, I collect words. I see something cool about a word. Looking at the tennis at the moment I noticed that ‘Nadal’ is ‘Nada’, plus L. I realised that ‘volley’ is an anagram of ‘lovely’… so I just collect words, whether I’m watching tennis, reading a book, riding a tram, I’m always just filter-feeding. And when I write words down, unlike a poet, it’s not necessary the euphony – the sweet sound – of the word, it’s more the architecture of the word. So if I see a word like ‘spasms’, I notice that it’s dads inside a text message: ‘pas’ inside ‘sms’. I could talk about dads inside a text message and it causes you paroxysms. It’s funny – I sense a funny story inside a word because of its architecture. And then the grid, the blank piece of graph paper, I choreograph all the words according to their length into the matrix.
“Choreograph” – lovely!
It’s not just graph paper, it’s choreograph paper.