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!
It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)
And we’re excited to welcome Amanda Rafkin as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!
When she’s not contributing to musical theater with her deft piano performances (or entertaining herself with various showtunes), Amanda constructs crosswords for various outlets including her own puzzle website, Brain Candy, where she posts a new puzzle every day. She also features other constructors, providing a valuable platform for her fellow cruciverbalists!
She has been published in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Universal, The Inkubator, and many other outlets, and recently contributed a puzzle to the 2020 Boswords crosswords tournament (which just so happened to be your lead blogger’s favorite puzzle from this year’s tournament).
Amanda 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 Amanda Rafkin
1. How did you get started with puzzles?
I really started loving puzzles at some point in my pre-teen years when I would confiscate my mom’s half-finished puzzles when she would step out of the room. I think she eventually got so fed up with me stealing her puzzles that she bought me my own book of variety puzzles, and since then I’ve been off to the races.
I became interested in constructing a couple of years ago when I got more serious with my crossword solving and felt that crossword construction could fall in that blissful middle-of-the-Venn-diagram area between something I might be good at and something I might love. I guess who’s good at anything is a matter of opinion, but I’m happy to report that I was wildly correct about the love part.
2. In addition to your crossword constructing, you’re also a musician, which seems to be a recurring theme among some constructors (Patrick Blindauer, Brian Cimmet) and tournament solvers (Dan Feyer, John Delfin). Do your musical skills ever influence your puzzling, or do you ever find yourself relying on your puzzly skills while performing or composing?
This is something I’ve heard many times (the relationship between crossword constructing and musicianship) to the point that I, myself, wonder if there’s something to it! If there is, it’s not something I’m aware of at all. For me, the two things are pretty separate experiences in my life.
The one exception to this I guess would be my theater-themed puzzles that I’ve grown so fond of. Every Thursday on my website is “Theatre Thursday”, where I post a midi-sized Broadway-themed puzzle, often accompanied by a bunch of relevant musical theater information that no one asked for. I also have a couple of Broadway-themed midi packs on the horizon. One is completed and will be released sometime in the (probably) not-too-distant future, and the other is a midi pack centering around each of Sondheim’s 19 major works, which I’m working on right now.
[Sondheim constructed cryptic crosswords for New York Magazine,
so Amanda certainly finds herself in good company!]
3. To call the last few months tumultuous is an understatement, considering public unrest and pushback against infringements on civil rights. In a similar vein, there has been a more strenuous push in crosswords recently (Women’s March, for instance) for greater representation for women, people of color, and the LGBTQIA+ community. In your estimation, how are the major outlets faring regarding inclusion?
Well there’s a loaded question! The numbers will tell you that, by and large, they are faring rather poorly. There are of course some exceptions (notably, the USA Today, which publishes far more puzzles by women than men). If you’re looking at the major outlet (The New York Times), this can feel challenging to assess in some ways.
If we’re acknowledging a recent push for inclusion, then we also have to take into consideration the often 18-month delay between the time of construction and the time of publication. As a result, the things that are happening now may not reveal themselves to us until over a year from now. None of this is an excuse for not having implemented a more inclusive system long ago, but I do think that even the major outlets with a shorter queue than The New York Times may not reveal to us any of aforementioned representational shifts until months from now.
I hope this is something that we as constructors and solvers continue to keep our eyes on, so that we can continue to work on opening doors that may have previously felt closed, and offering equal opportunities to anyone and everyone interested in the endeavor of crossword construction.
I think, as a whole, the general industry is still struggling to understand the difference between “I personally don’t know this because of my own life experiences” and “This isn’t gettable/knowable/likeable for solvers”. Inclusion begets inclusion, as exclusion begets exclusion. By leaving certain things/people/customs etc. out of puzzles, we continue this cycle in perpetuity. The more different kinds of people we have making puzzles, the more likely it is that any given solver will be able to do a puzzle and see themselves within it. And, at least for me, that is a goal that I always try to keep in mind when constructing.
[Solving runs in the family.]
4. What’s next for Amanda Rafkin?
I wish Amanda Rafkin knew the answer to that question as well. Given how things are going, it seems it will be a while before I’ll be doing much in the way of music again. So, for now, I’m going to continue to do what I’ve been doing for most of quarantine: making puzzles, putting them into the world, and hoping that they bring some kind of joy to folks during a time when joy can be a tricky thing to come by. Would it be awesome to be able to make a living solely from making crossword puzzles? HECK YES! So maybe that’s a goal for sometime in the future as well.
5. If you could give the readers, writers, aspiring constructors, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?
No matter who you are, no matter how much you know, no matter where you went to school, no matter who your friends are, no matter the experiences you’ve had in your life, no matter how woke you think you are, you have blind spots. We all have blind spots. And sometimes, in the wake of these blind spots can come decisions that hurt other people. We are imperfect but lifelong students on this collective journey to betterment.
Be open to feedback, specifically from people who have had different life experiences than you. Feedback is not criticism; it’s the space from which we all grow. So get feedback on your work and actually listen. Resist the urge to be defensive. Collaborate with other people. If they differ from you in some way, even better.
Oh, and if you’ve been tossing around the idea of constructing for a while but haven’t actually taken the leap…jump. The kindest and most supportive people are on the other side waiting to catch you.
A huge thank you to Amanda for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for updates on her puzzly and musical endeavors, and be sure to visit her puzzle website Brain Candy for all sorts of puzzle goodness. We can’t wait to see what she cooks up next.
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