Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!
This feature is all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them.
And this marks the sixth edition of our series of interviews where we turn our eyes to the future of crosswords. Instead of interviewing established talents in the field, I’ve been reaching out to new and up-and-coming constructors and asking them to share their experiences as a nascent cruciverbalist.
And we’re excited to welcome Malaika Handa as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!
You have to be fairly ambitious to get into constructing crosswords, but Malaika Handa is setting the bar pretty high.
But she’s best known as the creator and curator of 7xwords, an attempt to create a puzzle for every possible 7×7 crossword grid in a single year. If that’s not impressive enough, she launched 7xwords after having only constructed crosswords for a few months!
Malaika was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!
5 Questions for Malaika Handa
1. How did you get started with puzzles?
I started solving the New York Times puzzle about two years ago, when I got a job that had a commute. Eventually, we switched to working from home, but I still would solve the puzzle every morning. I didn’t realize regular people could make puzzles (“crossword constructor” felt akin to “astronaut” in terms of attainability) until a crossword blogger I liked refilled a corner as an example of how to make it better. That blew my mind! I started making mini puzzles in Excel, and then finally bought Crossfire around October 2020. Hand gridding is not for me, I’ve learned!
2. What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle?
I really don’t think there’s such a thing as a canonical great puzzle– or if there is, I am frankly uninterested. Appealing to every single solver seems like an impossible task, and a good way to end up with a puzzle that’s a little flat and lifeless. I like to solve puzzles that are fun for me, Malaika Handa, to solve! (I hope that framing doesn’t seem selfish.) Puzzles with pop culture references that I know, computer / math stuff, make-up / fashion stuff, Twitter slang.
Adam Aaronson had a puzzle with SYNTACTIC SUGAR in it, and I plunked it in with no crossings. I solved the rest of the puzzle floating on a cloud. I love that term so much– when I was a teaching assistant in college (one of my favorite jobs I’ve had) I taught it to my students, and I think it is a lovely and evocative phrase. I bet a lot of people had never heard of SYNTACTIC SUGAR before, so maybe that was really tough for them, but that’s okay. We don’t have to have the same opinion on everything.
What do you most enjoy — or try hardest to avoid — when constructing your own?
When I write puzzles, I like to use fill and clues that make me really excited, even if it’s things other people might not have heard of. (I think that’s called “voice,” by the way.) Once I clued ISLA as [Stephanie Perkins’ heroine] and all my test solvers said they had never heard of that reference. I kept it in the puzzle anyway.
Then my older sister solved it and when she got to that clue, she texted me with a zillion exclamation points and we freaked out over how good Stephanie Perkins’ books are. My number one advice to other constructors is: If a particular entry doesn’t make you excited, what is it doing in your puzzle? (By the way, sometimes the answer is “it’s holding in place three other entries that make me excited” and I think that’s fine.)
Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others?
I love hearing people’s favorite clues. Mine are Robyn Weintraub’s [Batting equipment?] for FAKE EYELASHES, and Mollie Cowger’s [“Thank God it’s Friday”?] for SHABBAT SHALOM, both of which I, no exaggeration, think about probably once a week. My favorite clues that I’ve written are always clues from my most recent puzzles. So right now there’s 50-Across from this puzzle ((Editor’s note: Great clue, but NSFW)), or [Wireless device] from this puzzle.
3. Your 7xwords puzzle blog has become something of a sensation in the puzzle world, shouted out by fellow constructors like Erica Wojcik, Kevin Trickey and May Huang. Where did the concept for 7xwords come from? What have you learned from the project so far? Will 7xwords reach its ambitious goal by week 52?
The site started with the discovery that there are 312 legal 7×7 crossword grids, which works out to a six-days-a-week midi puzzle. (I talk more about the 7xwords origin story and the math behind it in this episode of Fill Me In, at around 24:30. And if you’re curious about the code I used to build the grids, feel free to message me on Twitter!)
I’ve learned so much from this project, I don’t even know where to start. Stuff like “How to make an html page exist on the Internet instead of just locally on my computer” and “Having a separate email address for a project like this will make your life one hundred times easier.” I’ve also gotten a lot better at articulating why a particular clue or crossing feels like it needs improvement. That’s a skill that has come from copy editing *checks notes* about 150 midi puzzles. Back in January, I was operating mostly under vibes (“this feels like it could be better”) but now I can usually identify what needs fixing, and how to fix it.
As for whether we’ll reach the goal… I do have a constructor locked down for every single grid. So it feels very promising. I have also seen that final grid, with no black squares, and it exists. So, even more promising!
4. What’s next for Malaika Handa?
The most concrete thing coming up is my puzzle in the Boswords summer tournament! Registration will open on July 1. Join us!! It’s going to be a super fun time.
5. What’s one piece of advice you would offer fellow solvers, aspiring constructors/setters, and puzzle enthusiasts?
I would love for solvers to remember that just because they personally didn’t like a puzzle doesn’t (necessarily) mean the puzzle should not have been published. (Sometimes it does, of course. Like Woody Allen tribute puzzles– we can just stop with those.)
Also, when you’re solving, look up entries that you don’t know! It’s a game, not a test.
A huge thank you to Malaika for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for all of her crossword endeavors, and be sure to check out her 7xwords puzzle site for both the 7×7 puzzles and her other crosswords! Whatever she does next, I’m sure it will be brilliant!
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