Robert Quigley ’09 has a thing for words.
Jesse Day ’09, who heads the New Haven Scrabble Club alongside Quigley, once thought he had his friend beat in a round of Scrabble. The victory would have been noteworthy — Day and Quigley are currently ranked as the second- and fourth-best Scrabble players in Connecticut, respectively.
The game was almost over and Day had the lead. The pouch of Scrabble tiles lay empty, and Day knew all of the letters Quigley had in his possession. Looking over the tile-strewn Scrabble board, Day couldn’t think of any words Quigley could play to win the game.
He hadn’t thought of “henequens.” The word is plural for “henequen,” defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the fibrous product known as sisal hemp, obtained from the leaves of species of Agave.” Judging by the OED’s examples, “henequen” went out of use at the end of the 19th century. But Quigley played it, and it won him the game.
“He stole that game from me,” Day recalls. “It was incredible. Even from a Scrabble player’s perspective, Quigley knows a lot of words.”
Quigley does know a lot of words. He says he’s learned thousands just by playing Scrabble. Still, he wants to use words for more than scoring Scrabble points. A managing editor of Volume, Quigley hopes to make a living writing creative nonfiction.
“I like to get in and find out how things work,” Quigley says. “I want to take interesting things apart and put them back together, then hopefully make these things accessible to general readers.”
Quigley grew up in Manhattan, where his father divided time between Wall Street and academia, working in investment while also teaching economics classes at NYU and Columbia. Quigley says that his father’s movement between the practical and theoretical sides of economics probably influenced his own interest in non-fiction. Quigley didn’t and didn’t approach journalism until he arrived at Yale, focusing instead on poetry and short stories. His mother, Kathy Quigley, has one theory about why he switched to a less solitary form of writing.
“Robert thrives on social interaction,” she says. “He’s effective working alone, but he really enjoys having a group of people to bounce ideas off of.”
In collaboration with Volume’s small staff, Quigley has been able to influence the direction the magazine has taken since its inception two years ago. When Quigley talks about writing, he emphasizes accessibility, saying that he and the other writers have tried to make the magazine more approachable than its predecessor, Gunslinger.
“I like writing like Michael Lewis’ ‘Moneyball,’” Quigley says. “The general reader can learn a lot of general things from it that have nothing to do with baseball, but, at the same time, the old baseball scout, the old grizzled guy keeping score at home can learn something from it, too.”
But even when he and David Rudnick ’09 wrote a 3,000-word piece on DJ Erol Alkan for the most recent issue of Volume, it wasn’t accessibility that presented the biggest challenge. It was the choice of individual words.
“I labor over word choice,” Quigley says. “The first draft always takes a while because I spend so much time on each word, just constantly trying to decide how words and sentences sound to me versus how they might sound to a reader.”
There is no clear path to becoming a professional writer. Quigley has applied for summer internships at newspapers and magazines, but he has yet to receive notifications. For now, Quigley can only dream. He says his secret fantasy is to be “the next Malcolm Gladwell-, Michael Lewis-type nonfiction writer.”
Even as he says that, however, the Scrabble buff can’t help but scrutinize his choice of words.
“I don’t know. Maybe that will make juicy copy.”