Erik Agard: Diversity in the Crossworld
Erik Agard '11, the crossword editor at USA Today, spoke to Silver Chips about diversity in the crossworld. Agard, a Jeopardy! winner, has previously had his crosswords appear in The New Yorker. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you first get started making puzzles?
[After I came to Blair] I ended up in Mr. Stein’s [statistics] class, and he would always go to the big crossword puzzle tournament and tell us about cool puzzles. And that just really piqued my interest at a time when I was taking all these Magnet classes, and not really good at any of them or passionate about them. So I was in the computer lab solving puzzles all the time. And eventually, I got the idea to try to start making them.
Can you describe your creative process when creating a crossword, and what is your favorite part about making them?
A lot of times it starts with… something that I want to be out in front of people. It's starting from one phrase and trying to notice something interesting, have a wordplay property around it, and then fleshing it out from there. My favorite part is [that] there's something that can be very meditative for me about the process of making a seamless puzzle. It’s… very satisfying when it works out.
What does a diverse puzzle look like, and how is that different from the norm?
I don't necessarily need every puzzle to be diverse or meet a certain bar for diversity. And I don't think with 78 clues, it's necessarily even possible to include everyone in every puzzle. But I think looking at all the puzzles… in the industry, there are a lot of spaces where people are regularly not showing up [and] not being represented, which is a big problem. There's a lot of work left to be done in terms of diversity of puzzles as a whole, or puzzle venues as a whole—and that's before even getting to… who’s making the puzzles.
What kind of impact can crosswords have on readers that are reading different news outlets?
I think the same kind of impact that any kind of media can have, especially with something that's such a popular pastime that's on a lot of people's breakfast tables or commutes. I've heard from people that when certain pronouns are in a puzzle, that's meaningful to them, because they don't get to see their pronouns represented or validated a lot in the world. It can just be very important to have stuff that feels like it's for you. So crosswords can play a part in that, just like everything else.
What kind of work still needs to be done to make the field inclusive for everyone?
For a long time, including people of color in puzzles… just wouldn't happen very much. I think some editors [and] venues are moving into a stage where [they] know it's a problem. I think there's work to be done in terms of shifting who the audience is imagined to be. Then in terms of what constructors [and] puzzle writers can do, I feel like whenever I talk about something like this, I get a lot of support. But I don't see as many people making it a priority in their own work to the extent that it should be.
Was there a specific time when you started to actively make your puzzles more diverse? Did you learn to do this over time, or did you start out with that thinking?
I majored in African American Studies at the University of Maryland, and I think that really gave me more of an understanding of how systems are stacked in this country or in the world, and how… you have to have very intentional policies to rectify some of these issues. [Interacting] with those ideas… was something that I then applied to the crossword industry.
When you're integrating a new clue, do you look to… actively try to bridge the gap between all demographics doing the crosswords, or do you want to focus on one audience and give them something just for them?
I do try to make sure that everything is fair in the sense that hopefully anyone solving the puzzle can figure out any letter. That can sometimes be a constraint on what I do, but I do think that I am very biased in the direction of like, if I'm going to do a Beyoncé clue, let me do a deep cut Beyoncé clue, [so that] someone in the Hive feels very seen. Someone who doesn't know isn't going to know either way. So no point in catering to both.
Do you see crossword making as a way to create social change?
I'm back and forth on that. There are people that I respect and look up to on both sides of that debate, and I haven't really made my own mind up. And for me, it's just this is the thing that I know how to do. So I just keep doing it, and hope that's something, but wouldn't say that I'm necessarily optimistic.