116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Adrienne Raphel's obsession with words and wordplay started early.
'I've always been a word game person ever since I was little,” she said in a phone interview. And she was competitive, too. Frustrated that she couldn't beat her family at Boogle, she took what her family called a 'quantum leap” forward with the help of an online version of the game.
'I went from having to be handicapped to having to give the rest of my family a handicap in like two because I blitzed my way through Yahoo Boggle,” she said with a laugh.
Raphel's book 'Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures with Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can't Live Without Them” comes out in paperback on Tuesday. The moment will be marked by a virtual event that evening hosted by Prairie Lights in Iowa City.
Raphel, who was born in New Jersey and raised in Vermont, graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop with an MFA in poetry. She is now a lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program.
In addition to Boogle, Raphel's family enjoyed crosswords, too.
'I'm not as good at crosswords,” she admitted. 'It was something that growing up I did with my family. We competed against each other. We're all sort of equally good - except my mom is just better, which is good for family dynamics.”
As is no doubt true for many, Raphel regularly did crosswords without assigning too much meaning to them.
'They were something that I did and didn't think much about. But then I realized that millions of people do crosswords and they don't think much about them, yet the crossword is a stable presence in so many people's lives,” she said. ' ... And I thought, if it's always there in the background, well, what about putting it in the foreground?”
Created in 1913, the crossword's development parallels the arc of the 20th century.
'It's a symbol of our modern world and yet also tied to such ancient impulse - let's play around with letters and words,” she said.
It may well seem puzzling that a poet would pen a book about the history of crosswords, but Raphel sees her poetry and non-fiction work as interlocking - what might be thought of as a clever solution for making both kinds of work better.
'I think of myself as a very two-pronged writer at this point, but they spring from the same place. I'm a poet. I'm always going to be a poet. At the same time, I really love this kind of non-fiction - in-depth research, first person, reported out. For me, those things don't actually compete with each other,” she said. ' ... With poetry, for me, it's a very musical process. It's about figuring out emotions on the page that don't really have to do with narrative. And then the non-fiction allows me to dig into the world around me in a very different way.”
The story of the book's creation is itself an example of many parts of a mysterious puzzle coming together.
After the Writers' Workshop, Raphel pursued her Ph.D. in English at Harvard University and quickly discovered that she needed a writing outlet beyond the confines of poetry and prose about poetry. Through a series of connections, she started doing some magazine writing. She pitched a profile of New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz. The pitch was approved, and so Raphel had the opportunity to interview (and play Boggle with) Shortz.
'In the process of working on the profile I realized, wait, there's a much bigger world here, a much bigger story than this,” she said. Her editor at the magazine agreed.
At this point, several pieces of the puzzle fell into place. An acquiring editor reached out to ask if she had any book length projects in the works. Meanwhile, she was casting about for a topic for her dissertation. She saw a workable solution.
'My dissertation is the first draft, essentially, of the book,” Raphel said.
Raphel said World War II changed the way society interacted with the puzzles that had, until then, been popular novelties.
'World War II was the moment where you start to see the crossword as both as a witness and an active participant in something beyond the literal fun pages and the leisure pages,” she said. ' ... Here's the moment when the crossword cements itself as more than a word game among lots of other games to something with a deeper role in society.”
During the war, there was suspicion that an English puzzle maker was placing code words in his puzzles. Crosswords also were used as proving grounds for those who might be able to help crack the enemy's code.
'They're great stories and they really cement the crossword as a member of society in a much more multidimensional way,” Raphel said.
She has started constructing her own crossword puzzles as a form of therapy. Whether they will be published remains to be seen. But in the meantime, she has plenty of other projects to work on.
'I'm working on another manuscript of poems,” she said.
The new poetry collection will be her second, following 2017's 'What Was It For.”
How to watch
Adrienne Raphel will discuss her book, 'Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures with Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can't Live Without Them”
7 p.m. Tuesday
' Where: online with Prairie Lights Books, Iowa City