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One on One, Part 1 | The Nation

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Word Salad

Kosman and Picciotto on their Nation puzzle, cryptic crosswords, wordplay and puzzles in general.

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One on One, Part 1

Even though we sign all our puzzles and blog posts with a double byline, we are of course different people, with distinct histories and approaches to puzzling. For the next two blog posts, we thought we would take the opportunity to introduce ourselves separately, by interviewing each other.

HP: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you first discover cryptic crosswords?

JK: I was a puzzle aficionado from as soon as I could read and write. But I learned about cryptics from my father, and he learned about them during a sabbatical year in London. I was 9 at the time, and too young to really join him in solving, but he used to show me clues that were particularly ingenious. I could see there was something exciting and entertaining going on there.

When our family returned to the US—this was around 1970—there were no cryptic crosswords easily available here. (We didn’t know about Stephen Sondheim’s puzzles in New York magazine.) But there was Mel Taub’s Puns and Anagrams puzzle in The New York Times, and that was my introduction to any kind of non-standard crosswords. I soon tried my hand at writing clues myself, using standard crossword grids from Dell magazines. I’m sure the results were terrible.

HP: So how did you find your way to full-scale cryptics?

JK: When Hex began publishing in The Atlantic, it was a red-letter day in our family. Their puzzles, and Richard Maltby’s in Harper’s, were a revelation. I waited eagerly for both of those magazines every month.

HP: I introduced you to the National Puzzlers’ League many years ago. Did that affect your relationship to cryptic crosswords?

JK: Very much so, because it got me into constructing cryptics on a regular basis. For years, my only constructing outlet was The Enigma. And then when we took over as cryptic editors there, I began to think about the form in a more systematic way.

HP: Your training is in music. Do you think there’s a connection between music and puzzles?

JK: Empirically it seems that there must be—there’s such a large overlap between musicians and puzzles—but I’ve never been entirely sure what it is. Math is in there too, and computers (I began my career, briefly, as a programmer). It seems to have something to do with pattern-matching, and constraints, and so on.

When I was in graduate school in musicology, a professor once gave us an assignment based on an obscure piece of seventeenth-century polyphony. The manuscript was missing two of the six vocal lines, and we were supposed to reconstruct them based on the rules of counterpoint. The process felt identical to making a crossword grid; it was the easiest A I ever got.

HP: How has your thinking about cryptics changed over the years?

JK: Actually, I find musical style to be a helpful model in thinking about the practice of cryptic crosswords. The idea is to work within a set of conventions—whether it’s Baroque counterpoint or late-Romantic harmony—that are well understood. Sometimes you want to violate those conventions to produce a sense of surprise or delight; but if you go too far afield the result is a mess. And of course, conventions can change. We allow things in the Nation puzzle that we would have rejected in the Enigma.

HP: What do you look for in a cryptic crossword, either as a constructor or a solver?

JK: The same things most people look for, I suppose: imagination, freshness, wit and ingenuity. My favorite solving experiences are the ones that take me by surprise—where there’s a final payoff or punch line that I didn’t see coming. For that reason, I usually try to solve without skipping ahead to the final reveal; if something is going to be spelled out in the grid or the clues, I want it to catch me unawares. That’s the same kind of experience we like to give to our solvers.

Next week, Joshua interviews Henri. Do you have any questions or comments for us? Please share here, along with any quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.

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• The current puzzle
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• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints, and where every one of our clues is explained in detail.

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