Letters to Margaret might just be the most astonishing graphic novel of the year. Created by Hayley Gold (With help from all-stars in the “crossworld” of puzzle making) it’s also a crossword puzzle, a flip book and a commentary on seeing the world in starkly different terms. The book was kickstarted to the tune of $50,000 , but is now available in printed form from Loneshark Games.
The book follows two puzzle-makers, Derry Down and Margaret “Maggie” A. Cross, which one half of the book dedicated to each story in flip book form. Derry and Maggie have very different views of the meaning and purpose of crossword puzzle, and what kind of language should be used in them.
To explain a bit more:
If you think the world of crosswords is black and white, you’d be… mostly right. Hayley’s protagonists, like all of us, are stuck in their black and white thinking, but Letters to Margaret shows them, and us, how the other side sees things. To do this, the two sides are presented in a book that’s literally divided in half. The same series of events is twice-told, from two different characters’ perspectives, and both halves pack a different set of solvable crosswords. This graphic novel showcases the power of words and the fun of wordplay through imagery, text, and the puzzles themselves — all the major art forms!
Gold is an SVA grad but also obsessed with puzzles and puzzle making – she once did a webcomic about crossword puzzles, Across and Down – and well traveled in the puzzle-making world…which seems to be just as close knit and full of controversy as comics can sometimes be. (The Margaret of the title is Margaret Farrar, the legendary crossword puzzle editor for the New York Times. Think of her as Will Eisner with a grid.) Current New Yorker puzzle editor Andy Kravis designed the puzzles in the first half of the book.
Gold’s work exists on many levels…and Letters to Margaret is a daring experiment in multiple forms that will keep you thinking and puzzling for hours.
After Gold sent me a link to the book, I sent her some questions and she answered via email and the resulting interview is pretty amazing in its own right.
THE BEAT: Which came first…the puzzles or the comic? How did you get into making crossword puzzles? And how did you get into comics?
HAYLEY GOLD: I’ve never constructed a crossword, so I want to make that clear. I came up with the story first, I am upset about the tribalism I see happening in America right now, which has also penetrated the language, words, and the the crossword community. As someone who is passionate about crosswords, of course I cared most when it hit home. So I wanted to make a book that showed two people who had different perspectives on the issue, each of them reasonable and relatable, but neither perfect to encourage people to try to listen to each other more instead of writing people off as “trash people” (a term I’ve actually heard people use).
Initially the book was only to have the different versions of Maggie’s puzzles, which i came up with all the themes for but were then constructed by Andy Kravis, who is currently the puzzle editor at the New Yorker. When I found a publisher, the editor wanted me to include more puzzles, using the puzzles only referred to in the faux blog posts the book includes. I didn’t think I could afford that, but Andy and the editor worked together to create these additional puzzles.
Now that I’m experienced with the process, the puzzles in the second book, which were written by an all star line up of my favorite constructors, are much more weaved into the story. I came up with the theme concepts of all of them and certain key words in order to do this, but the constructor and my new puzzle editor, Will Nediger, make them real.
I actually have an autobiographic graphic novel coming out June of next year, which will detail how I became involved in crosswords, and it is a very personal and complex relationship actually, so I would refer people to read that to see the true nature of how I became so entwined in “crossworld.” I completed that book about 5 years ago at this point, so, you see, I’ve always been a cartoonist. And, honestly, I don’t even read many of them, but I’m in love with the medium, being able to both write and draw and having the two come together to make a whole that I believe is greater than wha the individual parts can do on their own. It makes me think of a certain Emily Dickinson poem (I’m quite the Dickin-stan, and her poems are featured un my upcoming auto bio) because we all think our medium is the best medium:
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
I should also mention while I was in college, I did a NYT crossword weekly web comic, which was my first foray into combining crosswords and comics. The comic, entitled Across and Down, took a snarky look at one of the daily NYT puzzles.
THE BEAT: How did you come up with the idea of this hybrid book?
GOLD: I guess I kinda answered that above if by hybrid you mean double-sided, or I guess also puzzle/comic. Maybe it’s a trybrid! (hope you like random portmanteaus, cause there’s more where that came from). Maybe a quadbrid if you will, because there are arrow-morphic narrators taking on the rare 2nd person, but sometime going 1st person, all of which and overlaps the main story which is in 3rd person story—there’s a lot going on here, pack a lunch, specifically one that has OREOs as dessert. (You’ll get it when you read the book).
THE BEAT: Who is Margaret?
GOLD: The book is “Letter to Margaret,” and the name is very important to the book, as not only is it the name of one of the main protagonists, it’s also the name of Margaret Farrar, the first editor of the NYT crossword, and the only female editor of a major paper’s xword until about a month ago, when Patti Varol became editor at the LA Times. Farrar plays a major role in the book as well.
THE BEAT: The only cartoonist I could even compare this to is Jason Shiga. Were you inspired by his work or any other cartoonists?
GOLD: Well, I can’t so “no” because you never know what’s sitting in the back of your brain and then influences what comes outta ya, but not really, I kinda just do my thing. I never was a heavy reader of comics like most of my peers at art school, but I read the books I was assigned to and enjoyed maybe one. People make a lot of bad comics and people are like “it’s good” cause it’s not AS bad as a lot of other comics. But even the stuff I do like doesn’t really color my MO when making stuff. Like, in the sequel I’m working on, I give some love to Winsor McCay, I then I realized I used a storytelling device that he popularized. And what I did with color’s symbolism, I just thought it was obvious, but maybe it was only obvious to me because I read that Jason Shiga book in school. But the thing is, its not about them being cartoonists, it’s just stuff I’ve consumed. So every piece of art and culture—that is, anything that could fill a crossword has influenced what I spit out — I’m a real Amy Sherman-Palladino when it comes to making allusions Don’t know who that is, look it up, that’s what she’d want you to do!
THE BEAT: Letters to Margaret was a very successful Kickstarter – how was that process for you?
GOLD: As for the Kickstarter, I wasn’t involved, the publisher ran that and just had me provide some written articles and drawings to spruce it up, oh, and to make an extra game for it that involved conversation hearts (which show up prominently in the book as well, along with other candy/junk foods). I did not receive any of the funding and actually was not allowed to look at the backend at all. I would rather not have to go through this process again as I am currently seeking a publisher for the first book and its sequel that would just publish the books outright (any publishers out there, DM me, got half the sequel already out of the oven for your tasting pleasure!)
THE BEAT: The puzzle making community seems to be as tight knit and full of discourse as the comics community. How would you compare the two?
GOLD: Equally as unfortunate in that its very clique-y. I felt I didn’t belong in art school, cause I wasn’t into superhero comics, and I wasn’t all about manga and high fantasy, and I wasn’t a stoner making the comics that didn’t make sense, and if you didn’t fall into one of these groups you were pretty much straight out of luck. The only person who made stuff that made sense to me was a teacher I had in my senior year, who is still super supportive of me and a good friend. His name is David Mazzucchelli. So yeah, I find things to be very exclusionary and insidery, and I’m not here for that. You won’t catch me a comics convention, can’t I just stay at home and draw? And with xwords, everyone will tell you “puzzle people are the nicest people ever” which, ignore the elitism of the statement, is just not true, they’re the same as everyone else. There are a bunch of suuuuper nice all stars, but there are also insensitive jerks, and the whole spectrum of in-between. Hell, if you just look at the commentary left on the NYT puzzle sites and other blogs, you can see the puzzle people can get as crass as the rest of us mortals. I kinda don’t feel at home anywhere, cause I’m the cartoonist who doesn’t like comics and I’m the crossword girl who doesn’t construct, or really, even solve. For the past five years or so I graduated from xwords to solely cryptic crosswords, which are WAAAAYYY superior to xwords lite. (Emily poem reprise!) The sequel actually teacher readers how to solve them, so they can experience that cryptic euphoria.
THE BEAT: Your bio says you are going to make more puzzle comics….what else do you have cooking up?
GOLD: Well, I’ve elucidated quite a bit already on the sequel (of course need a publisher to make that happen!) but I would also like to land a regular strip to do something like Across and Down again, but maybe in print, and maybe I’d actually get paid…there might be something in the works but don’t wanna jinx it. But I don’t wanna JUST do more xword stuff. After my autobio comes out next year, which is not a solve-a-long or a flip book like Letters to Margaret, though does expound upon my puzzle love, I have some other ideas for non-puzzle comics I wanna do as well, I’m not gonna be typecast into one subject area. I have so many inspirations to draw from. You see what I did there, wordplay people.