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VOL. 122 | NO. 120 | Thursday, June 28, 2007

Memphis Man Crafts Local Puzzle Book For Fellow Enthusiasts

By Eric Smith

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PUT A SPELL ON YOU: Crossword aficionado Mark Blakeburn, shown here at breakfast hangout CK's Coffee Shop on Poplar Avenue in Midtown, has self-published "Memphis in Puzzles," a collection of 54 crosswords with Memphis themes. -- Photo By Eric Smith

Quick, what's a nine-letter word for "Local crossword-puzzle author"?

The answer is B-L-A-K-E-B-U-R-N, as in Mark Blakeburn, a longtime Memphian and crossword fanatic who decided to share his passion with others.

His self-published book, "Memphis in Puzzles," gives crossword enthusiasts the chance to test their spelling skills - and their knowledge of Memphis history, music, events and sports - with 54 original, daily-sized puzzles.

"I was looking for something to do last summer and I put this book together in about four to six months," said Blakeburn, a 57-year-old adjunct English professor who has published individual puzzles but never a complete book. "I know what goes into a crossword puzzle, I know what would interest people in Memphis and I know what the level of difficulty should be."

To each his own

Born in Oklahoma, Blakeburn moved around a lot when he was young. His father, a minister, eventually brought the family to Memphis when Blakeburn was in high school.

He graduated from White Station High School and enrolled at Bethel College in McKenzie, Tenn., earning a bachelor's degree in English. He later received a master's in English at the University of Memphis.

He's worked crosswords as long as he can remember, and he's been constructing them for the past 20 years. Building a crossword can be time-consuming, an excruciating exercise in patience and precision as the author labors to make every clue and word fit together in the grid, he said.

"If you take a small puzzle with short words, you can usually put it together pretty fast," he said. "But if you take a more difficult puzzle with longer words, it's harder to get those words to match up."

Blakeburn - who has published crosswords in The New York Times, Simon & Schuster and Dell Magazines - should know. He spends about two to four hours crafting smaller, easier puzzles, but the longer, more difficult Sunday-length crosswords can take up to 70 hours.

The crosswords of "Memphis in Puzzles" fall on the easy end of the spectrum - but not too easy.

"I work New York Times puzzles every day, so these (Memphis) puzzles compared to the New York Times are easy," Blakeburn said. "But if you compare them to the Commercial Appeal, they're maybe a little bit harder."

It's so M-E-M-P-H-I-S

Though he admittedly isn't a history buff, Blakeburn became enamored with Memphis history through a friend's book collection.

He began reading such books as "Metropolis of the American Nile: A History of Memphis & Shelby County, Tennessee" by John Harkins and "It Came From Memphis" by Robert Gordon, gleaning important facts about Memphis' history and music.

One thing he learned, and successfully incorporated into a puzzle, was the fact that Ulysses S. Grant used the historic Hunt Phelan mansion in Downtown Memphis as a Civil War headquarters.

Blakeburn also became fascinated with the story of a 1900s band called the Memphis Jug Stompers, whose moniker became a difficult clue and answer to work into a crossword.

But the most challenging came from a particular Memphis eatery he had to include no matter how unusual its order of letters.

"It was hard to get in C-O-R-K-Y-S-B-A-R-B-E-C-U-E," he said, laughing. "It's got a 'K,' a 'Y,' two 'B's' and a 'Q.' They were hard to work in."

Each of the 54 puzzles contains about five or six Memphis clues per crossword - anything more would be impossible, he noted - along with standard crossword fare. And he had no trouble finding Memphis clues to include in the collection.

"I was going to do about 15 or 20, but it turned out to be over 50," he said. "There's a lot of information about Memphis, and it was hard to keep it down."

Prepare for takeoff

Blakeburn has launched a grassroots media campaign to promote the book - pretty much a do-it-yourself press release sent to media outlets around town.

And while his efforts earned him a spot on a local TV news program next week (WREG-TV at 9 a.m. Monday), he harbors no delusion of "Memphis in Puzzles" earning him fame or fortune.

"This isn't about the money," he said.

Heck, he knows he might not make enough to cover a full printing, but having a mainline publishing house print up to 2,000 copies of his book remains a goal.

With just a few copies sold, Blakeburn isn't concerned that "Memphis in Puzzles" isn't flying off the shelves like the latest from Oprah's Book Club.

"Books sell over time," he said. "You don't sell 150 in a day."

Until then, "Memphis in Puzzles," with its simple cover and design, is available for $10 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers, Burke's Book Store, Xanadu Music and Books and Tater Red's.

Burke's owner Corey Mesler said the book has been selling, and he's been enjoying its crossword offerings.

"I think the book is charming and smart," Mesler said. "I am a horrible cruciverbalist - I go only for the early week New York Times puzzles - but I'm having fun working my way through the book. It is unique. It only needs a little advertising to make it really take off, I think."

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