GB writes: What follows below is verbatim from an interview between Andy Kravis (editor) and Matthew Sewell and Brad Wilber (constructors). In the introduction, "I" refers to Andy.
For my own thoughts about the puzzle, click here.
I'm very happy to present this week's puzzle, which was constructed by Matthew Sewell and Brad Wilber. Matthew teaches literature and film at Minnesota State University, Mankato and has had puzzles published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Newsday, the Orange County Register, and the Wall Street Journal. Brad has been constructing puzzles for a variety of professional venues since 1992, and he became the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education crossword in spring 2014. In his “day job” Brad is a reference librarian who might help college students find the subject of this puzzle (hint, hint).
For my part, I can say that it was a pleasure working with Matt and Brad on this puzzle. I got a chance to ask these two a few questions:
[WARNING: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THIS WEEK'S PUZZLE.]
Andy: Talk about the process of making this puzzle. What was the impetus, how did you design/fill the grid, clue, etc.?
Matthew: We hatched (ha) this idea over the summer -- the idea of a centenary tribute was easy, but coming up with what felt like the right gimmick was not. I think what sealed it was seeing a way to use an illustration as a way to 'complete' a quote. We fussed over the exact shape of the bug for a while, too... I drew a LOT of different bugs.
Brad: For a while we wondered about doing a bug rebus, but we kept coming back to the idea of one big insect. Then Matt found that a particular “Metamorphosis” translation had an opening sentence that could be symmetrically parsed. It seemed like a sign. After that, as Matt says, he put tons of effort into refining the shape of the bug doodle. I remember sending Doug Peterson several options to vote on, and he vetoed one as “armadillo road kill.” The “winner” looks pretty “buggy,” I think. No matter which version we landed on, the connect-the-dots element could be seen as a bit too rococo, because you have to swoop off-course and back to do the six legs, but…we definitely wanted an audience to have a chance to see the puzzle and decide for themselves.
MS: My memory is that the fill went fairly smoothly after that. Brad's extraordinarily good at clean, lively fill, and I think we have the same taste in what brings flair to a section. I mean, sometimes clean can be boring, and Brad always seems to know when it's time to add some crunch with a word like HAWKBIT.
BW: “Smoothly” in the sense that it helps a collaboration a lot when you have major overlap in your sensibilities for fill, as Matt and I do. (We both have strong backgrounds in literature and film, for example.) Even though he hasn’t been at the craft so very long, I see him applying very rigorous standards to the fill and sifting through the merits and drawbacks of several options where possible. Let’s just say that fits my process. Maybe I trained him a bit in that direction….shhhh!
What’s more, I think he’s also quite good at generating multiple grid possibilities for a single idea – pretty “breathable” patterns, good interlocking, varying word lengths, etc. Even with that, there were times on this puzzle and on the complicated one we just had in the Wall Street Journal where we were literally losing sleep over near-misses with the fill, e-mailing each other past midnight. That part, not so “smoothly.”
AK: Do you prefer to construct alone or with a partner, and why?
BW: I’ll always have solo work on my plate, but I’ve lost a lot of that zeal for total creative control. It’s an illusion, anyway, since we all know that no editor treats your submitted manuscript as sacrosanct, and the final product always carries echoes of their style and expertise. Even though there are logistical and interpersonal challenges with co-constructing, enjoying the crossword community has become a big part of my life in the last few years, and collaboration is partly about cementing relationships that are important to me.
MS: I very much enjoy the interaction with co-constructors and editors. I think editors are partners too, and every puzzle I've done has been improved by editorial tweaks. (In this puzzle, Andy gave us IT'S HUGE, which greatly helped the middle-right, and he offered a number of elegant fixes to sharpen the clues.) The goal is to produce the best possible puzzle, and it takes many hands to get there; it's a great pleasure to share that challenge with collaborators who catch your mistakes, supply inspiration when yours is lacking, and push you to do your best.
AK: What makes a crossword particularly memorable or enjoyable to you? What sorts of things really bother you?
MS: I like crosswords that teach me things, whether in the form of words or facts I didn't know but am glad to learn (see HAWKBIT above!), or in the form of wordplay that reveals something about how language can bend. I'm most excited by inventive clue/answer combinations, especially for standard fill. One of the things that separates good puzzles from great puzzles is the attention paid to cluing the ordinary words.
BW: It’s very difficult to come up with a theme that’s entirely fresh to veteran solvers, so I tend to celebrate the high-concept puzzles that really take me somewhere I’ve never been before. I love puzzles that many other solvers feel are too much like trivia night in terms of cluing style, with lots of cool factoids on parade. Pet peeves would be obscure fill in spots where supplying a cleaner option would not have involved a lot of labor. Also groups of theme entries where the constructor has gotten fixated on a fairly narrow range, rather than casting a very wide net and coming up with the best grouping possible – say, in a letter-add theme.
AK: What interesting projects, crossword-related or not, are you working on right now?
BW: Keeping our heads above water in academia is a major project for both Matt and me, I would say. Lots of my free time outside my day job is spent with the editorial demands of the Chronicle of Higher Education. I have the goal of only having books on shelves in my apartment, not piles on every other available surface, which means I’m often trying to read things and give away my less-than-favorites. Lots of Tennis Channel, and now there’s Homeland to watch.
MS: "Interesting" might be too a high bar for me! My wife and I went to Vancouver for about six weeks last summer to attend a lot of the Women's World Cup games, and that's where I was when Brad and I did this grid. Does that count?
AK: If you could only have 3 books/movies/pieces of media on a desert island, which ones would you take and why?
BW: I’m thinking my Bible, all of Jane Austen under one cover, and some compendium of great short stories. I’m a mystery reader, but my picks there wouldn’t stand up to too many multiple readings, would they? If we changed the question to movies I would have to go three from every decade. Opera recordings I would need a great Don Carlo, a great Rosenkavalier, and a great La Boheme.
MS: I'm terrible at answering this kind of question. Some of the artworks that I deeply admire aren't necessarily the most consoling -- Fritz Lang's "M," Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno," Richard Wright's "Native Son," or Joni Mitchell's "Blue," say. Can I bring those and also, as a counterbalance, sneak in some more hopeful works like "The Royal Tenenbaums," "Leaves of Grass," "Angels in America," and "Darkness on the Edge of Town"?
AK: Any advice for aspiring constructors?
BW: Solve as many good puzzles as you can from the markets with strong reputations and the indie sources that seem to be generating lots of buzz. Then ask yourself what qualities they have that attracted editors to them. Construct with that in mind. I understand when you’re getting started that just filling the grid seems like such a relief and triumph that you forget everything else, but look critically at your work right from your earliest attempts, and embrace requests for revision. You’ll stand out from the pack where editors are concerned.
MS: I'm not sure how qualified I am to answer this -- I'm still learning a lot as I go. The only thing I think I can add to what Brad says is that it's helpful to keep the solver's experience in the forefront of your mind. Puzzles need to be engaging, and that means trying to imagine how a complete stranger will fare as he/she works on it... leave places that will draw the solver in, and be funny/clever in a way that lets the solver in on the joke. Puzzles are a kind of conversation with solvers, and they should be nodding along with you, or even (if you're lucky) laughing along... I mean, geez, if people are actually going to solve a puzzle you've made, you owe them a good time and some appreciation for their efforts!
Enjoy the puzzle!