Episode 16: David Astle

David Astle is an author, freelance writer and cruciverbalist.

Penmanship podcast episode 16: David Astle, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2015That last word might be unfamiliar to you, so allow me to explain: a cruciverbalist is a person skilled in the art of creating and solving crossword puzzles, which is something that David has been doing for most of his life. Since the mid-1980s, he has been crafting cryptic crosswords for readers of Fairfax newspapers The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, but for most of that time, he was known only by his initials. It wasn’t until 2010 that ‘DA’ exposed himself as David Astle, with a book named Puzzled: Secrets And Clues From A Life Lost In Words.

All of my guests on Penmanship share a love of words and language, but David Astle might take the cake in this regard – if only because when we met at a hotel room in late November, he was wearing a shirt which read, “Triple Nerd Score”. David is unique among my guests thus far to have co-created a new word: in 2012, he was part of a team which met at Sydney University to come up with a definition for the act of snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention. Their creation? ‘Phub‘: a phone snub.

For years, I have enjoyed David’s column ‘Wordplay’, which appears in The Sydney Morning Herald‘s arts section, Spectrum, each Saturday. It was through this narrow window into his long and prosperous freelance career that we met while he was visiting Brisbane to promote his first book for kids, Wordburger: How To Be A Champion Word Puzzler In 20 Quick Bites. As I soon learned, however, David is a man who carries many arrows in his writerly quiver, and it was a delight to discuss how he has built a life around a love for language.

Our conversation touches on the challenge of writing for children instead of adults; how he chooses timely topics for his weekly column; how he became obsessed with puzzles as a teenager and began stalking a prominent Fairfax puzzle editor; the interview that led to him quitting his one-time dream job as a feature writer for Inside Sport, and how he became the host of a television game show on SBS named Letters and Numbers.

David Astle is the author of ten books, most of them digging a wordy vein. His latest is Wordburger – his first for kids – that sneakily unlocks the mystery of cryptic crosswords. Other verbal odysseys include Riddledom, Cluetopia and Puzzled.  Smitten with language, David writes his weekly Wordplay column for Spectrum in the Sydney Morning Herald, exploring anything from emojis to Dothraki. He’s also responsible for the weekly DA cryptic on Friday in that paper, and The Age, while his news anagram can be heard on Radio National’s Sunday Extra program. From 2010 until 2012, David fulfilled the role of dictionary umpire on SBS’s Letters and Numbers. He’s also been a feature writer for Sunday Life and Inside Sport, plus a tutor in both journalism and creative writing at RMIT.

David Astle on Twitter: @DontAttempt

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3.00 The previous night, David launched his children’s book Wordburger at Where The Wild Things Are bookshop in West End, Brisbane, which is co-owned by previous Penmanship guest Fiona Stager

4.00 The book was David’s idea, but it was inspired by a lot of comments he was getting at book events and festivals by people asking him, “is there a kid’s version of Puzzled?”

4.30 “I wanted it to be a fun book that was also a manual, rather than a manual that happened to be fun”

5.00 David tested Wordburger on a “precocious young boy called Liam” prior to publication; he loved it, but the author then realised he should try it on other kids, too

5.30 “Part of the challenge – and the joy – of writing for kids is to make things far more visual”

6.00 Probably the hardest part of the book was to “play totally fair and at a beginner’s grade” in the language David used when writing it

7.00 “It is that book that parents may buy for the kids, but in the end have a sneak read themselves, because really, it is a simpler, illustrated version of Puzzled

9.00 David’s column in Fairfax Media’s Saturday Spectrum lift-out, Wordplay, came about six years ago after negotiating with his editors to try and achieve a bit more job security

10.00 How David goes about filling the 650-odd word Wordplay column each week: “a time hook is preferable”

11.00 He does have a backlist of topics, which is “a really important thing for a columnist to have”, consisting of “more timeless ideas that I would like to explore”

12.00 David tends to devote his Friday morning to writing the column, then lets the words distil over the weekend, before having a close read on Monday morning and filing at around 10am

13.00 David thinks he is a good editor of his own work, as he has a background in teaching creative writing and journalism at university, and would warn young writers against “that post-natal glow; while it’s good to be positive about your writing, you shouldn’t be too easily impressed by your stuff”

14.00 How the column has changed his career: “I suppose it’s made me a more legitimate wordsmith, rather than just a puzzle maker”

15.00 David is “loud and proud” about being a word nerd; during our interview, he is wearing a t-shirt that says “Triple Nerd Score”

16.00 Each Sunday, David has an ABC Radio National segment, ‘DA’s Word Play‘, where he scrambles a recent news story or name in the news into an anagram

17.00 This job does “get a little bit wearing” after a while, since it requires him to be constantly engaging with the news and thinking about how to remix it

18.00 “I’m almost like a chef, where I know that if I want to get that overall piquant effect, that I need to add beetroot, as well as a little bit of ginger”

19.30 David grew up in Balgowlah, a suburb of northern Sydney just above Manly Beach. “I just was hooked on letters, even before I knew what they were”

20.30 There were a lot of books in the houses where David grew up; his mother was a keen reader and a crossword solver. “It was a family home that was built of love and language”

21.30 David’s father was a sea captain; he wasn’t at home for the first year or two of his life, and his mother was an occupation therapist

23.00 “To just have a bed of language, to have this really strong sense of narrative, and what words can do, and the power of words – it just enables you to use the modern word into whatever tangent you take”

24.00 David always had writing as a love, but he didn’t know if he wanted to work as one, though sports writing appealed from a young age

25.00 David studied Communications at UTS in Sydney in 1980, which he enjoyed, because it was “free range, loose-limbed and relaxed”

26.00 At that point in his life, David was reading Vladimir Nabokov and John Updike

27.00 As a university student, David was “a bit brash”, but he found his comfort zone in the student press, where he created a puzzle page in “the student rag”

28.00 His interest in puzzling came from his first love in terms of wordplay, riddles: “They’re a friendlier version of what a cryptic crossword can be: that is, it’s in evasive language with a pre-loaded answer”

29.00 “I found myself getting into puzzles and cryptic puzzles in my early teens, and then became obsessed about puzzles, because I do find them so deeply satisfying and subversive”

30.00 David’s obsession with puzzles manifested itself into “a series of really annoying letters” that Fairfax received. He “pretty much stalked the puzzle editor” until he got a break as a crossword maker in 1983

31.00 David first met that Fairfax puzzle editor, Ron, only after realising he was a lower division rugby referee who was “always gasping for breath”

32.30 Ron opened the door to Lindsey Browne (1915-2003), who was the “crossword emperor” of the day. Lindsey made the crosswords for Fairfax and even The Daily Telegraph almost every day; “He was an absolute polymath; such a genius of a man”

33.30 How David pitched his first crossword to Fairfax in 1983, and how his early stuff was “not fit for publication”

35.00 David explains the concept of a “rule-breaking clue” in cryptic crosswords

38.00 David began receiving correspondence from his puzzle solvers only after they started identifying the crossword set-up by using the byline ‘DA’ in the early 1990s

39.00 “When people want to get personal about it, I usually treat that as a bit troll-like”

39.30 David Astle and ‘DA’ were two separate entities for many years, but they became the same person in about 2010, when Letters and Numbers was launched on SBS television

41.00 After university, David went travelling, including working on Norwegian cargo ships for about three months, and played rugby union as a flanker

42.00 He wrote a novel, Marzipan Plan, that was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 1991, at age 21

44.00 David’s scheme on the cargo ship was working out where the cushy jobs were; being “hyper-efficient, and then hyper-slack”

46.30 As a freelance crossword maker in the mid 1980s, David worked for Rolling Stone, among others, filing by Air Mail to his mother

48.30 David was a freelance puzzler from the age of 23, though he would introduce himself as a writer

50.00 David dabbled in freelance copywriting and ads for a while, and writing for local papers, which led to writing for Inside Sport, fulfilling his adolescent dream to become a sports writer

51.00 “I’ve been living off my wits, and looking for new opportunities, pretty much since my son was born, about 20 years ago”

52.30 David has become a lot better at negotiating for money. “The secret is the art of saying no, which I’ve probably only come to learn in the last ten years”

55.00 David entered the field of ad copywriting at the age of 40, and found himself doing “a lot of direct mails and hardware catalogues”, charging $60 an hour

56.30 One technical writing job was converting “opaque insurance copy into lucid, clear copy”

58.00 David became jaded with sports writing, as “there are only so many sports stories you can do”

59.00 One of his stories for Inside Sport included a 3,000 word Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race on-deck feature article

60.00 The day that David quit sports writing was interviewing an Essendon AFL player Darren Bewick at his home, and realising that there was “a lack of intellectual engagement” on Darren’s part

62.00 David considers himself a natural teacher, and enjoyed teaching creative writing and journalism at RMIT University in Melbourne

63.00 “I’m not one for lesson plans; I do like to think of a lesson an hour before I walk into the classroom – like my column, a bit”

66.00 David’s hosted a television game show, Letters and Numbers, that ran on SBS for about 18 months

69.00 “The fact that I haven’t written fiction for about 20 years peeves me a little, and does stick in my craw. That was my first love, fiction writing”

71.30 David is in contact with four young Australian puzzle makers, who he is encouraging and mentoring




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