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One on One, Part Two | 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 Two

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. Last week, Henri interviewed Joshua. This week we turn the tables.

JK: You grew up in Lebanon, a native French speaker. How did you first discover cryptic crosswords?

HP: As a teenager, I enjoyed crosswords in French, including some fairly challenging ones. Like American crosswords, French crosswords are definition-based, and the more challenging puzzles rely on clever and unexpected use of the language. I mostly found crosswords in paperback collections. Alas, those are now too hard for me! While I am of course still a fluent speaker of French, my command of the language has slipped when it comes to puzzle-solving. Anyone interested in French crosswords might enjoy my translation of novelist Georges Perec’s introduction to his books of puzzles.

Later, my British brother-in-law, a songwriter, introduced me to cryptics. Still later, in the US, I started solving Hex, Maltby and Frank Lewis. In fact, I launched a weekend breakfast Frank Lewis co-solving group. The group went on for decades, and through it I introduced many people to cryptics.

JK: And that group still meets!

HP: Yes, but now I just watch, as they test-solve Kosman-Picciotto puzzles.

JK: …which brings us to your career as a constructor. Tell us about that.

HP: I met Rebecca Kornbluh (Arachne in the National Puzzlers’ League) at an NPL convention. We found out that we both owned a book of cryptics by Azed, the diabolical setter for The Observer in the UK. Neither of us was able to finish those puzzles alone, so we decided to work on them together by mail. (This was long before e-mail.) It went really well, and she suggested we collaborate on constructing puzzles for the NPL. That was the start of a twenty-year constructors’ collaboration, which I may recount in a future post. Some time after that, you and I were asked to jointly edit the cryptics for The Enigma, and that was the start of the fifteen-year collaboration which morphed into our current project.

JK: What effect does it have to create wordplay in a second language? I think of you as the puzzle equivalent of writers like Vladimir Nabokov and Tom Stoppard, whose mastery of language comes from learning it consciously. Is that accurate?

HP: I am flattered to be mentioned in the same sentence as two of my favorite writers. Here’s a possibly more apt comparison. Someone—I think it was you, actually—once told me that two extreme reactions of living in a country where you are not a native speaker could be seen among the Marx Brothers: Harpo’s (not speaking at all) and Groucho’s (wanting total mastery of the language). I strive for the same mastery as these English-language learners, although in a less consequential arena.

JK: Is there any aspect of puzzling in which your linguistic background gives you trouble?

HP: Homophone clues! I have been in the US pretty much continuously for more than forty-five years, and I still don’t hear the phonemes the way you do. The ongoing tragedy of my life as one of the Nation puzzle constructors is that so many of my ideas for homophone clues have to be junked. (I also can’t get rid of my accent, but that’s not as much of a problem, because at least people think it’s charming!)

JK: One final question: What do you look for in a cryptic crossword, as a constructor and as a solver?

HP: As a constructor, I try to be as entertaining as possible within the parameters we describe in our guidelines. However, as a solver, I turn off the editor in my brain, and just enjoy the puzzles without worrying about the correctness of the clues. For me, it’s about filling the grid, not scrutinizing every clue. And moreover, I have a high tolerance for not succeeding. When I attempt to solve British cryptics, I often fail to complete them. So what? As we are fond of saying in the NPL, it’s only a hobby,

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• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines
• 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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