Literally Labeled Luminaries
"Midrash" by Todd Gross and George Barany (September 2014)


"Can we talk?"

The original seed entry for this puzzle was 68-Across, and it's no coincidence that I put it in the center of the grid. I submitted this puzzle to Will Shortz on June 18, 2014, about two-and-a-half months before Joan Rivers passed away. I got the rejection for this puzzle [in the same e-mail that Will asked me to revise the Four By Four puzzle] on July 30, 2014, almost a month before Ms. Rivers underwent the throat procedure that led to her passing.

This isn't the first time that I've "foreshadowed" someone's passing: on May 27, 2012, I sent Rich Norris a crossword containing RAY_BRADBURY as a theme answer ... he passed away about a week later, on June 5, 2012. That puzzle was rejected as well. But on to happier subjects ...

The idea behind this puzzle is pretty simple: replace a last name ending in S with a list of items of the corresponding category, like taking Heather Mills and making an entry HEATHERPAPERPEPPERRUMOR. The hard part is finding famous people with last names that allow this, but once you have them, there are lots of ways to make the theme entry. Indeed, there are so many that I thought it would be nice to have the theme entries cross each other in lots of places. It is quite rare that one can do this [see here for a famous example by Merl Reagle], because lots of letters have to match in specific places, and the theme entry lengths need to match. Only when you have lots of possible theme entries to play with can you (usually) try to achieve this much interlock.

Still, I didn't want to use just any conceivable theme answers. I wanted the names to all be familiar, to include both men and women, and to cover a wide time period and a variety of professions (e.g., not all actors or singers). I'm guessing that younger solvers won't know Phil Silvers, and older ones might not know Terry Crews, but on the whole, I think the puzzle has a good mix of celebrities. Of course, all of the first (and last) names needed to be different, and it helps if they're distinctive (like Alicia and Britney), as there are fewer possible last names that work than, say, Bill.

Also, I didn't want to use just any possible item that fit a category, but wanted them to be familiar and fun. As Will Shortz noted, there are thousands of rivers that I could have used after JOAN in that middle entry. But where's the fun in using ODER or YALU, which already show up way too often in crosswords (278 and 53 times respectively in the New York Times, according to XWordInfo)? I chose three rivers that I figured your average Times solver would know and appreciate: even if they've never heard of the Columbia River, they've certainly heard of Columbia University, so the name is familiar to them. And it's in the U.S., and a big important river (#7 on this list), so I think it's fair game.

The other entries are more constrained, most having maybe two dozen reasonable entries, and some (like Phil Silvers) much less than that. I'll admit to using a few less common choices to make the puzzle work, like pole as a kind of spear and Tower Bridge (which is pretty famous, but I'm guessing many people don't know it by name).

Also, did you notice that the three full-length entries use 3 category items, and the four shorter theme entries use 2 items? I was glad to have that extra level of consistency in the theme answers.

Once the theme entries were put in place, I still needed to build a workable grid using them. This took a few attempts. Eventually I tried having I???H at 62-Across [thinking that I'd use IRISH there; didn't think of ISIAH, but SS?? for 63-Down would have been challenging). I remember this grid took effort to fill. Eventually, I subdivided the most difficult parts and filled them in; this made the the rest of the grid much easier. Nevertheless, in polishing this puzzle for posting on his website, George asked me to add two more black squares to the grid, not once but twice [that's 4 extra, for those of you counting at home]. This allowed us to remove difficult entries like CBT, LEILANI, and SILURIAN. My bad. You're welcome!

This puzzle is, like my previous one for the Barany Crossword Friends site, a pangram. I wasn't trying to pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs, making this basically a coincidental afterthought: there was already a J and Q in the theme answers, and there were natural places to put an X and Z in the fill. The rest of the alphabet was easy enough to include in a 21x21 grid.

I'm guessing that many solvers will find this puzzle a real challenge to solve, given the open-endedness of the theme entries, but I hope they will conclude it was worth the effort.


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