MICHAEL: Funny to be submitting a comment to Jeff Chen about this, but I had an idea for a puzzle and needed help with the grid, and everyone told me I should ask ... Jeff Chen! That was good advice. Jeff was able to design a fillable grid and we did it all through email in a few days.
Our only disagreement was over whether the words under the hidden HAND should have a surface sense of their own. I thought they should, although that greatly limited the number of choices. Jeff thought it was fine to have nonsense words in those entries, I conceded the point, and Will liked the puzzle. Okay, Jeff — you were right!
JEFF: It can be tough for any two constructors to see eye to eye on any given project. When Michael approached me with this concept, my immediate thought was that it would be interesting to see IWORK or YMEN in one's puzzle; mystifying, flipping into hopefully a solid a-ha moment.
Turns out Michael had a very different idea, wanting only regular-seeming words that simply didn't seem to work with their clues (think: LED clued as HANDLED). He felt strongly that this would produce a better a-ha moment, whereas I worried that solvers would gloss over them, potentially finishing without understanding the concept. That would be impossible with something kooky like ICAPS taunting you.
How to resolve the logjam? My secret weapon is Jim, who gives great second opinions. And if I don't like his input, I simply ignore it and tell people he said something different.
Seriously though, I hope we came to the right decision. It's always so difficult to predict what will produce the best a-ha moment possible.
BRENT: In the ten years I've been submitting to the NYT, the rejections always included constructive criticism. Comments like "the theme isn't robust enough" gave way to "we accepted a very similar puzzle weeks ago!" I felt like Thomas Edison experimenting with the light bulb. Acceptance did arrive in 2014, but this puzzle is seeing the light of day only now.
Let me back up a bit. In a used bookstore in 2006, I discovered Crossworld, Marc Romano's book about the Stamford puzzle tournament. It hooked me, as I'd been a word nerd my whole life—a linguistics major, archivist, paleographer, Spanish instructor, and memory coach. In 2006, I was living in Boston. The tourney was coming up, and I began counting the days. There, I made friends with stellar constructors and wound up giving Brendan Emmett Quigley a ride back to Beantown. His energy was infectious.
My initial efforts were pretty cringeworthy, but essential. I enjoyed some early successes, with my first puzzle appearing in 2008 in the New York Sun and in 2011 in a Penguin Anthology of literary-themed crosswords. Huge shoutouts to Peter Gordon and Ben Tausig, respectively, for their support.
The NYT remained the Holy Grail. I submitted solo and with Michael Blake, whom I'd met through Monday NYT puzzle queen Andrea Carla Michaels. We submitted this puzzle in February 2014 and got the "crossword — yes!" email from Will in April.
As I was solving an NYT puzzle in August by David Steinberg and Bernice Gordon, the answers looked eerily familiar. It was the same theme as ours! We wrote to Will, who apologized for the duplication and promised to run ours in a couple of years "so it fades from solvers' memories." He is a man of his word, and here we are today.
MICHAEL: We can hardly begrudge that Will accepted the Bernice/David collaboration with a similar theme and ran it immediately, as that carried a delightful new cruciverbal record: the biggest age difference between co-constructors. We're happy that our puzzle, accepted slightly earlier, still got published 3 years later.
ANDREA: Michael came up with this idea of adding -IE back in 2012 which I thought was super fun; it's the exact kind of puzzle I like. We generated a big list (so big that I wanted to make it a Sunday ... still might!) but MB talked me down, even though there was some hesitation over the ugliness of 14s and I feared some confusion starting 1A with both a theme answer and breaking it in two to fit in all of SWEETGEORGIABROWN.
When MB came up with the solution of matching first word SWEET with the last word's reveal of ADDIE, we were good to go! Lots of back and forth over whether we could use BREAKFASTNOOKIE and GODSWILLIE ... we toyed with the idea of making this X-rated!
Upon acceptance, there was a request to redo the NE corner to get rid of some dreck (FREI, TARE, ILO) so we swapped out PERIMETER for SWAPMEETS and it all came together.
MICHAEL: Coming up with a NYT-quality theme is about the hardest part of puzzle making these days, and yet every week I see a clever theme and think, "Why didn't I — or Andrea and I — think of THAT?" When this one came to mind, I felt sure it wasn't original. After all, ADDIE ("Tatum's 'Paper Moon' role") is almost a chestnut in crosswords, so I felt sure someone would have figured out a list of "plus IE" entries. There was one non-NYT puzzle from many years before in the database, but it didn't have the ADDIE kicker and there was no overlap in our theme entries.
We had a lot of giggles when generating our potential theme entries. Andrea is the one to think of BREAKFAST NOOKIE, and I thought of GOD'S WILLIE (my proposed clue was "Florida?" but Andrea didn't get it) and we thought it might be an Onion puzzle, but those were the only good "blue" entries, so we went with this. It was still fun, even if it was clean!
I'm not too good at either pop culture or sports, and this NICKELBACK theme owes much to serendipity. I was in a gym locker room, trying to tune out the football commentary on the TV, when I thought I heard someone say "nickelback" and I figured it was some defensive lineman or something. But then I got to thinking about the word, and quickly realized it had the same number of letters as MONTICELLO. Thanks to Google, I learned it's actually a Canadian rock group. And after looking at images of nickels, I happened on the coincidental symmetry of AMERICAN BISON and E PLURIBUS UNUM.
It's a pleasure to see the final version in the NYT and compare my clues as submitted to what Will published. As Manny Nosowsky (the first cruciverbalist I ever met!) told me years ago, despite the pride-of-ownership howls from constructors, Will almost always improves on the original clues. This was certainly true in this puzzle. I love "Run out of rhythm?" for AEIOU. I had "Plains buffalo, more correctly" for AMERICAN BISON, and I think it's much better to avoid the word "buffalo." Best of all was the clue for 25-Down, which brings together the Canadian and the coin concepts: "Image on the reverse of a Canadian quarter" for CARIBOU. Wow — and it runs right down through the center. Don't I wish I'd thought of that!
Started with an email from my friend and partner in many puzzles, Michael Blake, asking if I wanted in on the theme. EASTERNEASTER and PATTERNPATTER had come to him in his sleep and they weren't in the database.
I thought this was a neat and weird concept, x n x, which could be parsed two ways, and was more than just add an N. Will thought it was original too, which pleased us.
We called it LIVE n LEARN even though that wasn't the exact thing we were doing, but the feel we wanted to communicate. We discarded many ideas, they weren't as easy to come up and be clear and/or amusing as we thought, but then we got a nice set together.
I added DIVANDIVA and LEARNLEAR because I wanted them to make the most surface sense possible. Michael then came up with the wonderful FREETOWNFREETOW which went neatly across the middle. Can't imagine who came up with a pangram for the fill! :)
Michael and I met at a construction lunch and became good friends a half dozen years ago. Many of our puzzles are from something one or the other of us has spontaneously said at lunch and we expand it into a puzzle. Because the puzzle was based on an idea Michael originally had, he gets top billing on this one. This is our 6th published collaboration, but we've made at least a dozen more that have been published elsewhere, or for private clients, or have (gulp) been rejected.
We have very different styles and senses of humor, but share a respect for each other and usually have dozens of backs and forths about what we can and can not live with, usually managing to work it all out. We offer advice on each other's individual work as well. And it was Michael who brought me into this century by insisting I learn how to use a computer to aid my construction and to facilitate our collaborations. This puzzle went through eight or so iterations as we tried to make it as smooth as possible.
This is a traditional puzzle type (this word follows these words ...) but we were excited because we had a nice 15 reveal across the middle and four theme entries that had not been used before: SPERM WHALE, PIGGYBACKING, FOG MACHINE. Two 10s, two 12s and a 15 reveal seemed like a lot of material for a Monday, so I thought this would be a Tuesday, but I think I'm seared in Will's brain as Miss Monday. So be it!
What we liked is that there are so many kinds of banks, river banks, sperm banks, piggy banks, fog banks (a nod to SF where we both reside), so room to play! Plus we loved the cheekiness of SPERMWHALE as well as the X in RIVERPHOENIX. And yes, we went for the pangram. Originally we had JAH/JONG but it was for a Monday/Tuesday level and Michael couldn't live with JAH, but was able to change OBOE to OJOS and preserve the J!
KOKO is snuck into the lower corner as a tribute to the Siamese I had for 16 years who was my closest companion. The only other private shout out is to the COEN brothers, as they are fellow Jews from Minneapolis. When we made this puzzle a year and a half ago, "No Country for Old Men" was their big hit. I've asked Will to update the clue to their new smash "Inside Llewyn Davis", but it may be too soon, or that film title might not be Monday level.
In San Francisco, I'm overshadowed by cruciverbalists who are known by their first names. But when I see Manny, Byron, Andrea, Tyler and their ilk, I like to remind them of this puzzle I made in 2008. Because the Times chose to produce this as a set of granite coasters, I believe my puzzle will be the only one to survive a global nuclear holocaust, and thus may be a Rosetta Stone explaining crosswords to future archaeologists. Today's puzzle has a similar theme, with four transformations and a reveal that involves parsing a two-word phrase as four words. I think it might be nice for the NYT to reproduce it as a microdot on the back of a cockroach, since that, too, would survive a firestorm.
FALL, FELL, FILL, FOLL, FULL. Michael and I had done H*CK, P*CK, I had done M*LT so now we tried F*LL. People occasionally pooh pooh this kind of "vowel run" theme. I still think of them as fun, bouncy word poems. Plus it's very difficult to FILL a grid with all those Fs and double LLs. FILLINTHEBLANKS was the perfect 15 across the middle and was a crossword reference so it seemed to pull it all together.
Michael Blake and I are frequent lunch companions and I wonder if this idea came up over a bagel one day! the best part of this puzzle for me is getting the word SHMEAR literally over the reveal BAGEL. We had to decide if we wanted the types of bagels to be the first or last word. Some concern that the PURPLEONION might not be well enough known. But it is the icon of comedy and jazz clubs here in SF and where the Smothers Brothers and Woody Allen and Mort Sahl all cut their teeth. As a former standup, I couldn't resist and was happy it slipped through.
This collaboration with Michael was a bit unusual. I wanted to take common phrases that had a common element like KISS AND TELL / SHOW AND TELL and "swap partners" to make KISSANDSHOW. We had a lot of fun coming up with these. The most unusual was PRIDE is with both PREJUDICE and JOY, which was also a nice 15!
Someone had done a puzzle where the reveal was a word that could be parsed into a direction, like THIN (add TH INto puzzle) So Michael and I came up with SP-IN. SPACEOFDIAMONDS was the original phrase. It later inspired my friend Peter Stein to want to create a SP-OUT puzzle (Wed 4/28/2010) but it's interesting to note that to add in letters was a Monday idea, but to take them out was a Wed. Words flow better when you add another letter. When you omit them (as in ELL CHECK) it takes a few seconds to figure out what is going on.
My first published collaboration with Michael Blake (see notes on Mon 11/26/2007). PICKOFTHELITTER 15 was the genesis. PACKOFLIES was the later genesis of an idea with Joon Pahk to do a "six pack" puzzle, that actually had SEVEN theme answers to include the reveal, but it ran in the LA Times.