Did you ever read “Choose Your Own Adventure” books? The ones where you, the reader, get to decide what the main character does at various junctions? As a child of the 1980s, I have fond memories of using my fingers as placeholders in the pages of these books, trying to keep track of each decision branch so that I could go back and choose differently the next time.
Choose Your Own Adventure fiction, or interactive fiction, as it’s known, is experiencing a renaissance thanks to the ubiquity of e-readers. The open-source software Twine lets you write your own interactive stories, and companies like Inkle Studios (which produced the gorgeous, award-winning game 80 Days), Choice of Games, and Delight Games are bringing them to the world.
Because I tend to filter everything through the lens of cryptic crosswords, I took one look at these platforms and thought: “why not have an interactive cryptic crossword tutorial?”
I completely freaked out when I discovered that The New Yorker, my favourite magazine, at one time published cryptic crosswords edited by Fraser Simpson, my favourite cryptic crossword setter. An Amazon search had led me to the collection “101 Cryptic Crosswords: From The New Yorker”, published in 2001, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. How had it taken me so long to discover that such concentrated awesomeness exists?
I added the collection to my Christmas wish list (it was December and my mother has spent years drumming it into me that you never buy yourself anything in that month). Then, I counted down the days to the 25th, hoping someone would get it for me.
It's rare but every now and again the Globe and Mail messes up the Saturday cryptic crossword puzzle and mismatches the clues and the grid. We love Fraser Simpson's Saturday morning cryptic over here, as I've said previously, so it's a bummer when we're forced to miss out.
This morning was one of those mornings: the grid started with 1 Across but the clues started with 7 Across. We mourned the lack of puzzle, then moved on to other things. Until my husband said: "I wonder if we could figure it out for ourselves."
Like many families, we have long-standing Christmas traditions: watching White Christmas, felling a (typically very scrawny) tree from our own property, tackling Fraser Simpson's full-page regular crossword puzzle, and leaving out Christmas cake and sherry on the 24th. We have newer ones, too. My husband introduced us to the tradition of listening to The Shepherd on CBC Radio, which we now all do in rapt silence. My brother-in-law (and his culinarily skilled mother) introduced us to feasting on bacalhau on Christmas Eve.
And then, there's the very new tradition of the cryptic crossword.
Books have always been a big thing in my family at Christmas. When I was young, I would tear away the wrapping on new titles—from Black Beauty to A Wrinkle In Time—then spend the balance of the holiday lost in their magic.
I love maps but not for the same reason as my friend Jeroen.
He loves them as works of art—exquisitely detailed, lovely in form and colour—and because of the record they provide of the way the world once was.
I love maps, but not for the same reason as my mother.
One of the highlights of my week—particularly if it's been a week in which we haven't seen much of each other—is to curl up on a Saturday morning with my husband and the Globe and Mail cryptic crossword.
Whenever I visit my parents' house, I spend a few private moments in front of one particular watercolour painting.
It is a scene of laundry drying in the backyards of a Montreal suburb in very early spring, sometimes in the 1960s. The artist who painted it was my grandmother and like much of her work, the medium is unassuming and the scene is quietly domestic. And yet, I am transfixed at every viewing. When I stand before that painting, I feel as if, for just a moment, I have stepped back in time and into her life.
She works extremely long hours under difficult conditions and she is often lonely. When she is, there is very little I can do to help and that breaks my heart.
When I am lonely, distraction helps and as you know from the contents of this website, I find cryptic crosswords to be a wonderful distraction. I could not give my friend a hug or make her dinner but perhaps I could distract her from her loneliness, I reasoned. Perhaps I could show her the hidden door that leads into the magically complex world of cryptics, and in so doing, give her some respite from the world around her. I wrote her a guide to solving cryptic crosswords. And, to make the process as engaging as possible, I wrote her a personalized puzzle, with clues and answers designed especially for her.
When I write, I am alone. I'm physically alone in a quiet room but I'm also alone in my thoughts. Sometimes I become so absorbed in the text that I literally do not hear anything, including the sound of my husband's voice if he walks in and asks me a question. It's a solitary exercise, writing, from the first sentence I type out on the screen to the moment I hit "send" on the email to my editor.
So I'm always a little amazed when an acquaintance calls up to say she stumbled across a piece of mine in a magazine and enjoyed it. It seems magical somehow that a piece I wrote in such solitude has made its way out into the busy, bustling world and has a life of its own, interacting with people that I have never met and probably never will.
I'm a writer, explorer, amateur setter of cryptic crosswords, and new mom.