Anyhow, onto today’s guest puzzle:
Lynn Lempel has long been one of my crossword-constructing idols. She has published hundreds of puzzles across many different venues including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Inkubator, and the former Post puzzle CrosSynergy. One of her trademarks is creating puzzles with simple but really fun themes, featuring grids with smooth and interesting answers. Today’s puzzle is another example of that, in my opinion. She took familiar phrases and added different body parts to them, creating wacky phrases:
- 24A: [Chewy candy version of a small horse?] is GUMMY LITTLE PONY, based on My Little Pony + gum.
- 30A: [Blunt directive to close up one’s pants?] is BUTTON THE FLY, based on on the fly + butt.
- 51A: [Romance down under?] is KANGAROO COURTSHIP, based on kangaroo courts + hip.
- 67A: [Typical features of Elle or Marie Claire photo shoots?] is LADIES AND GARMENTS, based on ladies and gents + arm.
- 82A: [Opera singer Maria Callas, e.g.?] is LEGEND ON A HIGH NOTE, based on end on a high note + leg.
- 101A: [Grumpy parents’ thought on Christmas Day?] is TOYS RANKLE US, based on Toys ‘R Us + ankle.
- 113A: [Folks kicked out of a ballroom competition for foul language?] is SWEARING DANCERS, based on swing dancers + ear.
One thing I’m always amused by in Lynn’s puzzles is that she always includes a few theme answers that make me laugh out loud. KANGAROO COURTSHIP and TOYS RANKLE US evoke really funny images in my head; they hit me really hard in the part of my brain that loves bizarre phrases. I can imagine some overly stiff adults folding their arms while refusing to get into the present-opening spirit and shouting about how much toys rankle them. It wouldn’t surprise me if there are other solvers out there who had similar reactions.
I got a chance to do an email interview with Lynn to mark today’s guest puzzle and, obviously, to learn more about a constructor whose work I’ve strongly admired for years. My questions are in bold and her responses follow.
The question that every constructor gets: How did you first get into writing crosswords?
In the late 1970s I worked on a weekly super-easy-to-read newspaper aimed at adults. Every issue included a crossword they got from someplace in Mississippi, that I could see was not really easy, with things like uncrossed letters and weird abbreviations. One day I asked if I could spend time trying to construct one, and from then on I did all their puzzles. Little did I know! I left that job in 1980 but am still doing those puzzles — I’m now up to number 1,722! I call them my no-brainer puzzles because there’s no symmetry and no theme, just extremely easy vocabulary and clues.
I used to joke back then that I’d do one for the New York Times. A co-worker called my bluff, and not knowing any better, I submitted a 21×21 that took countless hours of struggle. But Gene Maleska’s rejection came with a long, encouraging, handwritten letter and I tried again. This time, again for a Sunday, the answer was yes.
You’ve become especially well-known among puzzle solvers as one of the best specialists in constructing puzzles with easier themes. What do you find appealing about making these kinds of puzzles?
I don’t think it’s that I find them more appealing. It’s just what seems to come naturally. I’m always somewhat mystified when people comment how hard it is to make a good Monday-type puzzle. For me, it’s just the opposite — I would be hard-pressed to create an out-of-the-ordinary theme with unusual grid tricks, or one of your own metas.
Conversely, I noticed on XWord Info that you’ve had a small handful of themeless Friday puzzles published in the New York Times. Do you still write themeless puzzles and, if so, can we expect to see some from you in the future?
I haven’t done a themeless in a long time. No particular reason. But I do think themelesses have gone beyond me. They seem to all have a certain trendy vibe that just isn’t me. It’s no secret that I am hopelessly ignorant when it comes to pop culture and slang. That’s not to say I’ll never again try one, though I do prefer themed puzzles as a solver.
You’ve also been asked to write puzzles for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament for several years now. I had the pleasure of writing the really hard Puzzle #5 for the ACPT in 2019, but I remember it took me a very long time just to settle on a theme that I thought might work for it. How does your process of constructing a puzzle for a crossword tournament differ from your process of building a daily 15×15 puzzle, if at all?
As you know, the first step is to settle on a theme and theme answers, which Will Shortz has to approve, and he tells you what the difficulty level should be. Right away, that’s very different from a “regular” puzzle, which you just send in as a fait accompli and hope for the best. The other difference is that I rarely construct puzzles larger than 15×15, and the more recent ones for the ACPT have been 19×19. Those larger puzzles take me way longer — just like this one did!
On average, how many puzzles do you typically write in a given week or month?
The number has gone way down. Back in the day, five or more per month was commonplace. Now I’d guess it’s closer to three or four — not including those no-brainer ones — though it does vary tremendously.
One thing that’s always impressed me about your puzzles is how much care you take to make your grids smooth and fair, without over-relying on unfair or obscure or otherwise junky answers. That’s certainly apparent in your “Bodybuilding” puzzle, and I know just from corresponding with you on it just how particular you are about your grids (which is a trait that I share!). I’m wondering what inspired that aesthetic. Was it something that came from years of writing easier puzzles, where it’s generally imperative to fill your grids with common words and phrases that beginning solvers can be expected to figure out? Did it come from solving puzzles prior to that? Or did it come from something else?
I think you’re asking whether creating lots of easier puzzles led me to be more concerned with smooth fill — that is, grids relatively free of so-called junk. But I’d say it’s the other way around. My puzzles typically end up slated for Monday because it’s easy themes I tend to dream up and it’s easy grids that I tend to construct. For me, making the grid is the challenge and the fun part — and that means working at it until it is smooth and accessible. It’s not unheard of for me to redo an entire puzzle even after it’s clued because at the end I’ve noticed something I didn’t like.
Of course “harder” words are appropriate for trickier themes, but I wouldn’t fill a Sunday puzzle much differently from a Monday one. If something strikes me as subpar, it’s subpar no matter the day of the week and I’d try to change it.
Besides writing puzzles with easy themes, do you have a particular style or a set of interests that most inspire you when you’re building crosswords?
Only that I’m not inspired by hit songs, TV shows, movie stars, sports people — namely, all the stuff I don’t pay much attention to. Yeah, I know, that excludes a mighty lot of typical puzzle fare! I’m probably familiar with only the most well-known of celebs, and it’s hard to put in a puzzle what you don’t know. To be honest, I also find people’s names just generally boring, both to solve and to clue. So-and-so of such-and-such movie. So-and-so with the album such-and-such. Given the choice between a person’s name and a regular dictionary word or phrase, I’d usually forgo the name.
Do you have a favorite crossword you’ve written? (I know, hard question when you’ve written so many!)
Could never come up with a favorite!
Thanks for the time and the great puzzle, Lynn! What did you all think?