Decatur's crossword hits New York Times' hardest day

White, Ned (hwīt, ned) n. 1. Resident of Decatur, age 63, whose first published crossword puzzle appeared in The New York Times in January 2010. 2. Creative writer of mysteries and stories with unusual twists. adj. 1. Determined beyond normal reason and rejection.

On Monday, The New York Times publishes its easiest crossword puzzle. Each day is a bit harder. Sunday’s vocabulary test is not the hardest, though.

Saturday is the splintery pain in the pencil, or in Ned White’s case, the pen — he’s always been a fearless crossword detective.

“He won’t even look at the Times puzzles until Thursday at the earliest,” his wife, Carla, explained. “This is Ned, who loves a challenge. He has tons of confidence and isn’t afraid of failure.”

White’s doggedness to parse a puzzle in The New York Times was critical to publish his puzzle in The New York Times.

Two years of wordplay and waiting ended Jan. 16, when his first puzzle was published — on a Saturday.

His grid was so skillful that Patrick Merrell, the Times crossword co-blogger, had no idea it was White’s first puzzle.

“A nice construction with a lot of interesting words and phrases, a very nice batch of clues and a cool grid design to boot,” Merrell described it. “It seemed like a puzzle from a veteran.”

White’s connection to crosswords always has linked him to those closest to him.

He grew up with a mother who tried every day to solve the Times crossword. After he moved away, she would call him for help. As a week went on, her calls became more frequent.

“She’d get into Saturday and would really struggle,” he said. “So would I.”

White, who grew up near Boston, always liked using his brain as a key to unlock the power of words. Words like quirky describe him, if you see him driving his 1972 Jeep Commando. Or iconoclastic, for his senior year at Yale, spent among 12 elite scholars who each produced a single academic project. “I played a lot of pool,” he said.

In the 1980s, White started a murder mystery by mail business (“I lost my shirt”) that led to being asked to write a book on how to solve mysteries. Preferring clues to answers, he instead wrote his own mystery, “The Very Bad Thing,” in 1990.

“I got published by Viking Penguin and got a clap on the back,” said White, who also has written scripts for HBO and public TV. “This puzzle gets in The New York Times, goes worldwide and I have people e-mailing me on how to solve it.”

The Times crossword also marked a turning point with his wife when they were dating. She is 20 years younger. He had three grown kids. In 2000, they announced their wedding plans in an e-mail that noted finding their common ground while doing the crossword.

That was 2001. Five years later came the documentary “Wordplay,” about devotees of crosswords and the “cruciverbalists” who create the puzzles.

“That was a kick in the pants,” White said of the movie. “I thought, ‘I can do this.’ ”

Their road trips now featured Ned, in the passenger seat, doodling on the atlas, sketching out a crossword taxing enough for a Saturday Times.

“Saturday puzzles need to have a wide-open design that’s stingy with black squares,” said Merrell, who has published 69 Times puzzles. “You want a good variety of subject matter. You also want a nice mix of interesting answers — fresh vocabulary, as we say — that uses a lot of different letters, including uncommon ones.”

The Times receives about 100 crossword submissions a week. White’s several early tries resulted in one word: rejection.

“Didn’t bother me at all,” he said. “One was a music theme with ‘etudewheresmycar’ and ‘cantatabekiddingme.’ It was rejected, but I believe [Times crossword editor] Will Shortz had to be chuckling. It’s a hoot when it works.”

When his freelance work as a stock photographer and writer would slow, White would lose himself in puzzle-making.

“It’s as if he’s gone deaf,” his wife said of that zone. “The house could be on fire and he wouldn’t have a clue.”

White first collected consonant-heavy anchors such as — spoiler alert! — “beerandskittles” and “moonandsixpence.”

Like an interior decorator cramming in unusual furniture into an artful look, White stacked “stagemom,” “potatorot” and the old album “arethanow.” He squeezed in “brackish,” “seedmoney” and “teardrops.”

In mid-2008, Shortz notified White that his first puzzle had been accepted. White understood that up to two-thirds of his clues would be rewritten.

For Saturday “the clues need to be deceptive in some cases and ambiguous in others,” Merrell said. “Solvers need to know more of the world — literature, science, math, ‘The Simpsons,’ music, sports and even the occasional Russian river.”

A crossword moves into the Times like moss would in a desert. Slowwwwllllllyyyyy.

“We’d race out every Saturday to check if it was published,” Carla said. “Then Ned heard it could take two years for a puzzle to appear. So we stopped racing. The waiting made it more fun, and it weeds out people who just want to make money quickly. It takes two years for that $200 to show up, too. It’s about something more. It’s about the challenge.”

The puzzle appeared, with no heads-up to them, as they were traveling and lacked computer access. They begged friends to fish the Saturday Times out of the recycling.

White’s clues had changed from the very top. For 1 Across (“stagemom”), he had offered, “Nervous audition watcher, maybe.” Edited: “One very concerned with how a kid acts.” Many solvers guessed “goatherd,” and they filled the Times blog with their own wordplay over White’s debut.

“A great Saturday puzzle is like being captured by aliens who are trying to discern the limits of human intuition,” wrote Bruce H. of Ithaca, N.Y. “I saw a bright light. I jerked around in agony for forty minutes ... and when I came to, the grid was filled. ... I must be deranged from ingesting POTATOROT.”

White, while waiting all those months, successfully submitted three more puzzles to the Times, all for Saturday. His name already stands out, as Merrell pointed out after working the Jan. 16 debut.

He “would be listed in a phone book as White, Ned; or combined, ‘whitened.’ That’s a very unusual quality.”

Or as Ned White would laugh and remind you: That’s wordplay.