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Q&A with Guggenheim grid-maker Elizabeth C. Gorski

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GorskiSpiral.jpgOn Sunday, the New York Times featured a special crossword puzzle celebrating the 50th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s landmark Guggenheim building. The puzzle’s author was Elizabeth C. Gorski, a crossword constructor known for her entertaining, creative, holy cow! grids. (As followers of my Twitter feed know, I’m a big crossword fan.) I thought it would be fun to celebrate the Guggenheim’s anniversary by talking with Gorski about her tribute puzzle. (Bonus: All of the images in this post are clued in the puzzle. There are a few spoilers herein, but it’s Wednesday so you’re caught up, right?)

MAN: How did you come up with the idea of doing a crossword on the Guggiversary, and then to incorporate a spiral into the grid?

Elizabeth Gorski: Well, the Guggenheim [theme] was pretty much just a fluke. I was visiting the museum about a year ago and read about their anniversary in a newsletter. I came home, where I have a little idea-board, and I immediately put up there as a nice thing to do.

The spiral evolved over time. I was thinking about the Guggenheim and I thought I could do a straight tribute puzzle, with the usual set-up, symmetry, no problem with that. But it just seemed that the building is so dynamic and the story behind it was so interesting I thought that’d be awfully boring.

KandinskyComposition8.jpgI let it sit on the idea-board for a long time. Then I saw Ken Burns’ documentary film on Frank Lloyd Wright and that was the defining moment. Remember at the end, when he plays that beautiful slow movement form the Beethoven’s Emperor’s Concerto? He takes you into the Guggenheim and he pans up and shows you the spiral and then and then, at camera level, slowly descends through the spiral. Burns used the Beethoven soundtrack in a way that was very powerful. (In fact, Burns had explained early in the documentary that Frank Lloyd Wright was a huge fan of Beethoven.) I thought that the grid has to be a spiral! [Image: 97 Across.]

Another evolution in my thought was: Should I make a round puzzle? Then I thought, maybe I should do what Wright was supposed to do, which was make something within a grid. Wright had to fit his building within a square city block, so I thought I’d use the standard block formation. My puzzle pretty much followed the architectural details set out by the New York Times, but the symmetry was all gone. That made it easier to construct because I didn’t have to observe any kind of symmetry. I could make the design and put the words in. It was a weird evolution.

GuggErnst.jpgMAN: I’m a crossword geek so I know you’re known for creative grids such as this one. I gather that when you pitch a grid such as this to NYT puzzle editor Will Shortz that he knows something like this might be coming and is receptive to them?

EG: Well, I really don’t know. I have worked with Will for 14 years and my philosophy with editors is to have a necessary distance so they can examine the work and reject or accept it totally objectively. So I just sent him the grid without saying anything and told him that I made the grid in honor of the Guggenheim’s 50th anniversary. I try to give them as much of a surprise as I can when they open the puzzle, to try to sell it and to say as little as possible about the puzzle. If you have to talk too much about the puzzle it really won’t work. The solver doesn’t have much to go with except the clues and that’s the way it should be. I don’t think [Shortz] expects anything from me and I always think everything’s going to be my last puzzle. I had a ‘Plan B’ to give it to the museum for something. [Image: 101 Down.]

MAN: I was amazed at all these clever little stacks within the puzzle; MANET is right over OCEAN, and of course MANET painted lots of OCEAN scenes. PATRONAGE is over THE SOLOMON R GUGGENHEIM, which is fitting because he was the museum’s patron. Then, inside the spiral, you had BEGUILE-CHAGALL-DAPHNE as a three-fer stack. Near the end of his life CHAGALL made a BEGUILE(ing) portfolio of works titled ‘DAPHNE and Chloe,’ a print series that came out of work he did for the Paris Opera. So in addition to nine theme answers and such…!

EG: Now, should I just lie and say I planned that and appear much more interesting? I wish I could have planned that! In doing American-style puzzles every letter has to have an across and down component, so I don’t think I could have planned that. That’s amazing.

But those are some of the mysteries that emerge in puzzles. That’s part of what makes them fun.

MondrianGugg.jpgMAN: As Rex Parker noted, the theme density was astonishing. I gather there was certain theme content you knew you wanted in? Or? Walk us through that.

EG: Exactly. I went over to the Guggenheim’s website and made a list of their artists and tried to include as many as I could possibly include while still maintaining a decent structure. Sometimes you can have overload and have too many themed answers and then a lot of stuff holding them together. So here I wanted all the artists I could get in — it ended up being nine — and I also wanted to distribute them around the grid instead of bunch them into one place. It’s a lot easier when you don’t have to worry about symmetry. Asymmetrical puzzles look harder but actually I find them much easier to construct. [Image: 34 Down.]

MAN: Anything you wanted to put in the puzzle but couldn’t fit?

EG: I think I wanted a few more artists. There’s always things you want to fit in and you’re just constrained by the architectural details you have to follow. I think the major thing was to create the spiral.

MAN: Did you hear from anyone at the Guggenheim?

EG: I haven’t heard from anyone at the Gugg, but I’m going there [today], the exact day of the anniversary. It’s free. I’m looking forward to seeing it and I’ll get Guggenheim ‘spiral’ cookies and I’ll wear my spiral earrings. It was a lot of fun to celeb a great institution with the puzzle. I love buildings and I love the architecture. I’m a fan.

Related: Gorski’s puzzle broken down (further spoiler alert) at Rex Parker’s crossword blog. The puzzle and some entertaining notes about the Gugg’s building at Jim Horne’s Wordplay, the NYT’s crossword blog.

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