At the ripe old age of 17, puzzle wunderkind Ada Nicolle sold her first crossword to the New York Times. In the three years since, the young trans woman now based in Toronto has been able to carve out a career as a puzzle constructor and editor, with crosswords regularly appearing in USA TODAY, on the Redstone puzzle app and on her Patreon site; she also co-edits the indie puzzle site AVCX+. All this happened during COVID-19 lockdowns, as Nicolle was coming to terms with her gender. Nicolle came out just last year as lockdowns were lifting in Ontario.
“Puzzles are a fun way to express my personality and showcase stuff that I like, right? I really like putting stuff in a crossword puzzle that I know about, [then] seeing other people recognize it,” Nicolle says. “I remember putting ‘gender euphoria’ in a puzzle once. And I wanted to see how people would react because it was something that I was thinking about at the time, you know, trying to come to grips with my gender identity. My puzzles became as queer as I was, and I got really nice feedback on it, along the lines of ‘I really like these puzzles. I feel seen and represented.’ It’s nice because I just want to feel seen, myself.”
Nicolle started selling puzzles in earnest in 2020, first via a newsletter, then on her Patreon site. Initially, she just wanted some spending money so she could purchase a mic and audio equipment. Now, puzzles are a full-time gig. And this week, Nicolle adds us to her regular roster. Xword: Xtra’s Queer Crossword launches today with two puzzles constructed exclusively for Xtra by Nicolle. (Beginning January 1, a new Xword puzzle from Nicolle will drop on the first of each month).
Born and raised in Orangeville, a town 60 kilometres northwest of Toronto, Nicolle went to Toronto’s Humber College for comedy. “Ya, I’m a Humber comedy grad. Before the pandemic, I was doing mostly comedy,” Nicolle says. “And then the pandemic happened. Like everyone, I was stuck inside. So I started writing puzzles full-time. It was another thing people could interact with, so it sort of gave me the same gratification.
“The pandemic was a really hard time for me, in terms of mental health because of the isolation,” she says. “I remember the beginning of 2021, trying to discover who I was and to feel better. And it was very shortly after that, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m a girl. That explains so many things that I’ve felt throughout my life.’ Right? And like I said, a lot of puzzle publishing for me was putting stuff out there, like, how do people feel about this gender concept? Do we like this if I talk about it?”
Trans people and Gen Z are rarely associated with crosswords. While white older cis men still dominate the industry, there is a growing chorus of critics demanding greater diversity, with a handful of younger BIPOC and queer creators building platforms for puzzles that better represent the population as a whole.
“Crosswords are generally seen as [popular with] an older demographic—your grandmother’s crossword puzzles,” Nicolle says. “And I think that discourages a lot of younger people.” She promises a younger, more inclusive vibe for her crosswords for Xtra. “I think everybody should be able to solve a crossword puzzle.”
And we should warn U.S. and U.K. puzzle solvers out there that Xword will plunge you into the weird and wacky world of Canadian spelling, bejewelled as it is with double Ls and colourfully pushy Us and centring as it does on “re” over “er” stylings. Nor will we apologize for our mercurial Zs (which rhymes with “meds,” BTW).
Not surprisingly, Nicolle has always been a word wonk. “I was obsessed with the alphabet as a kid,” she says. “To this day, my mom and dad like to tell me stories of how I would scrawl the alphabet on our basement walls in crayon or I would write stories with the letters of the alphabet as characters.”
That obsession was first given shape and focus by Scrabble. “I was really into Scrabble,” she says. “I’d get so excited when the new Scrabble dictionary dropped. I had the whole collection. This is so funny. I literally don’t think about this aspect of my life that much. But when I say it out loud, it sounds so goofy. But, ya, when I was a kid, I collected dictionaries.
“I was a huge, tiny nerd.”
The transition to crosswords was a natural one. “I’d try to pack the Scrabble board as densely as I could. And then I realized that I was making crossword puzzles. It’s always been a part of my life.
“I think it’s so cool that you can put words going across one way and they make different words going down. There are so many ways you can do that, and sometimes there are just large expanses of white squares and every word works somehow. How is this even possible? Because the English language wasn’t designed for this to happen.”