The Art of Wordplay: Speaks with Joel Fagliano

Though only a freshman, Pomona College student Joel Fagliano has accomplished something many of his peers probably haven't even thought of: he's had three crossword puzzles published in the 'New York Times,' the most prestigious newspaper for puzzle-loving readers. His most recent puzzle filled the newspaper's Saturday slot, which notoriously holds the most difficult crosswords. We asked Joel about his unique experiences with the puzzle industry, as well as his take on education in general.

By Eric Garneau

joel fagliano What got you interested in crossword puzzles?

Joel Fagliano: I always liked puzzles as a kid, but I didn't start doing the New York Times crossword puzzle regularly until my freshman year of high school. Then, around the beginning of sophomore year, I watched the documentary Wordplay about the Times crossword, its constructors, and its best solvers. It made me interested to try and construct one myself. How did you go about getting your puzzles published? Is the process for the New York Times any different than that for the Los Angeles Times or anywhere else?

JF: It's a long process to get a puzzle published, especially in the New York Times. You make the clues and the puzzle on your own, and then send it off to the Times. About a month later, you get an email telling you whether Will (Shortz, the Times crossword editor) wants to publish it. I submitted at least seven or eight puzzles before I had one accepted, and to this day I still receive about three rejections for every acceptance. Luckily, Will sends some feedback with each rejection, providing some tips for improvement and specific things he liked and didn't like about your puzzle. It's one of the most helpful parts for growing as a crossword constructor. The process isn't much different for the LA Times, except that it's generally easier to be published there because the editor receives fewer puzzles to choose from. From what I've read, Will receives around 100 puzzles a week, and of those he chooses seven. Do you find yourself stumped by crossword puzzles much anymore?

JF: All the time! The New York Times puzzle goes in ascending order of difficulty, Monday being the easiest and Saturday the hardest. I would say I only complete the Saturday half the time. I rarely finish most late-week puzzles in one sitting, but I find that when I come back to them after an hour or so something clicks and then I can get the rest. I enjoy being stumped by a crossword, or having to think over a clue for a while. One of the best moments in puzzling is being stumped to the point of giving up, but then cracking one clue and figuring it all out. Switching to education: how did you choose Pomona College?

JF: I was looking for a good liberal arts school, and I stumbled across Pomona in a college book. It sounded perfect; the combination of great academics and Southern California is very appealing! It's definitely under the radar as top-tier schools go, but I've loved it. What do you study there?

JF: I'm currently undeclared, and I honestly don't know what I want to study. I've always been interested in a wide range of subjects, so I'm taking a pretty broad array of classes to see if anything grabs me. This semester, I'm taking Italian, geology, cognitive science, and anthropology of religion. So, yeah, all over the place! Do you find your education helps you craft your puzzles? In writing your clues, does it help to take a multidisciplinary approach, thus broadening your knowledge base?

JF: In some ways it does, but not as much as you'd think. Reading a lot as a kid definitely helped grow my vocabulary, but a lot of the words and knowledge that help me when I construct come from solving other puzzles. I definitely know a lot of random facts that I only learned because of puzzles; Elvis Presley's middle name, for example, (ARON) or a Greek portico (STOA). That being said, I recently used the name NEHRU in a puzzle, and having taken a politics of Southeast Asia course last semester, I was able to come up with a more interesting clue. When I clue my puzzles, I try to be very multidisciplinary. I like to include pop culture, history, foreign languages, science and other subjects all together in each puzzle to make it more varied and appealing to the broad range of people who solve the NYT puzzle everyday. For example, I would usually clue the word ALIAS as the hit TV show, but if I felt my clues for the whole puzzle as a whole were too pop-culture oriented I might use a literary-based clue, such as 'O. Henry, e.g.'. We know you've got at least three years of schooling left, but looking down the road: do you have any plans post-college, or any career aspirations?

JF: My goal is to find something that I love doing and get paid for it. What that is, I have no idea, but I have confidence that when I do pick a career I'll throw myself wholeheartedly into it like I have with puzzles! Finally, is there anything else you'd like to tell our readers about your experiences with crossword puzzles, or your feelings on crosswords in general?

JF: I would urge anyone who hasn't tried crosswords before, or has tried them and hated them, to try solving with a friend. Start with a Monday puzzle, and work your way up. You'll be surprised how much easier and more fun they are. It's a great way to get into puzzles. I started mostly by helping my dad on the Sunday puzzle.

Next: View Schools

Popular Schools

The listings below may include sponsored content but are popular choices among our users.

Find your perfect school

What is your highest level of education?