Solvers and scribes seek eureka surge

Thursday, April 7, 2016
David Astle interviewed by Alex Fairhill

A portrait of David Astle
David Astle. Photo by Michelle Ransom-Hughes

Crossword creator, puzzle enthusiast and author David Astle sees words differently to most people. He explains the similarities between writing and puzzle-solving to Writers Victoria’s Alex Fairhill ahead of his Writers on Wednesdays – Playing with Words session.

Words are something we use every day. What draws people to crosswords, riddles, anagrams and other word games?

It’s called the block, and it has FA to do with renovation franchises. In fact, the block that squats at the centre of riddles and crossword clues is much like a writer’s block. As scribes or solvers, we often feel stuck, stymied, frustrated. Sometimes we can’t figure out how to reach the other side, to pounce on the answer, the next paragraph. Until aha! You hit the eureka surge, that breakthrough moment, that endorphin rush of problem-solving. And that’s why we keep returning to puzzles, or prose, or scripts, or poetry.

How did you get into crossword writing?

Always loved them. Still do. The day I twigged that cryptic clues are riddles for grownups was the day I wanted to join this elite cult. So I started making grids in high school, just to pass my time in Economics and Religious Studies. That obsession carried into uni, where I launched a puzzle page in the student rag on the University of Technology Sydney campus. Where some undergrads might change regimes or invent Facebook, I cooked up anagrams. Eventually I graduated into a Fairfax contributor in 1983, and learnt to relish the profanities of commuters as they wrestled with my spoonerisms.

What are your favourite and least-favourite words, and why?

Favourite word this week is SOMEONE. It’s a secret oxymoron – a few beside an individual. The same word also sounds like a prize, or sum won. And deep down all of us want to be someone. And to get uber-nerdy on you, someone can also be mixed with L to spell lonesome, which is why we all crave that certain someone. And lastly, the word is a fruit inside a fruit (melon in sloe) when both lose their Ls. Can you see how my brain works? Do you realise why it’s hard for me to live with myself sometimes? Can you come to my workshop to help me out?

As for my least favourite. Well, I’m not too fond of process, or infrastructure, or community. I know they stand for important things but they’re so readily trafficked by vacuous panjandrums that they end up losing all meaning and value.

About David Astle

David Astle is a full-time word nerd. Many will know him as the dictionary bloke on SBS’s Letters & Numbers. Or maybe just DA, the devious crossword setter in ‘The Age’. He’s also the author of such wordy titles as ‘Wordburger’, ‘Riddledom’, ‘Cluetopia’ and ‘Puzzled’, plus six other books, from fiction to travel to true crime. He taught journalism and creative writing at RMIT.

About Alex Fairhill

Alex Fairhill is an emerging children’s and YA author. She posts writing-related thoughts on her blog and Twitter (@AlexFairhill).