Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!
It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)
And we’re excited to welcome Lisa Bunker as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!
Lisa Bunker is a lifelong puzzle fan and a constructor whose work has appeared in Games Magazine, The New York Times, and Simon & Schuster publications. Of course, this is in addition to her work as an author, an activist, and a representative for the state of New Hampshire.
But now having returned to the world of puzzles, Lisa is probably best known these days as the creator and editor of Crucinova, one of the most ambitious and innovative puzzle outlets on the rise in the puzzleworld today. (You might have seen them included in the Boswords puzzle packet, on r/crossword, or on Twitter!)
Lisa was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!
5 Questions for Lisa Bunker
1. How did you get started with puzzles? Where did the idea for Crucinova originate?
Since infancy I’ve been fascinated by words, numbers, and the beautiful patterns that can be made with them. My childhood collection, still with me, was mechanical puzzles. My earliest memory of crosswords in particular is of becoming aware that my parents were interested in them, and then trying to make one for my father. I think this would have been when I was about eight.
It was a free-form vocabulary-style puzzle, and I recall my young brain delighting in discovering how you could cross two words at a shared letter, and then add more words and build something. By high school I had a hand-drawn grid in the back of a notebook that I would work on when I was bored in class, so by then I was figuring out how interlocking fill worked. I erased some squares so many times that I wore holes in the paper.
Crucinova arose out of several factors. One was my frustration at being unable to place unconventional puzzle ideas with any of the mainstream outlets. Also, on the solving side, my wife and I started doing the New York Times puzzle every day, and while we enjoyed it and still do, they did all seem to fall within narrow conventions with regard to themes, grid design, and cluing – the same conventions I remembered from twenty years ago.
I’ve always been interested in reinventing things, so I started thinking, surely there are other constructors with creative ideas they’re having trouble placing, and surely there are other solvers who would enjoy exciting new solving experiences. And when I found out that there was now a platform available that empowered anyone to offer online solving – PuzzleMe, from AmuseLabs – the last piece fell into place.
2. You have recently returned to constructing after a hiatus. How has the puzzle world changed over time? As you start to interact with the puzzle community at large again, what have you learned along the way?
I hesitate to set myself up as an expert on the Crossworld of yore, but obviously the Internet has changed everything. Back in 2006, the last time I was active nationally, most puzzles were still printed in daily publications rather than posted online, and submissions to the Times were still by snail mail. If there was online community around solving, I was not aware of it.
Now we have not only online solving from all the major outlets (including new ones like the Atlantic and the New Yorker), but also several indie subscription services and dozens of free personal constructor blogs, a thriving solver’s blog scene, indie tournaments, and abundant spaces on social media platforms for both constructors and fans to gather and share their enthusiasm. There are even Twitch TV channels where you can watch live solving, which I love. As an editor I find it so valuable to be able to witness someone solving a grid I edited.
What I’ve learned along the way is that the denizens of the Crossworld are truly lovely humans, generous, smart, funny, and kind. I’ve learned that there is a wonderful tribe to which I didn’t even know I belonged. What a delightful discovery!
3. Over the last few years, there has been a push for greater representation in crosswords for women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. And there has been some movement forward, particularly for women in constructing and in editorial positions. How do we keep this momentum going? What are some useful things that allies can do to assist?
One way, obviously, to keep the momentum going is by supporting and celebrating diverse creators. As a Rainbow Human myself (I identify as trans, non-binary, and queer), I took inspiration from The Inkubator‘s mission to feature the work of female-identified constructors and to include more diverse content in fill and clues.
I’m also impressed with Sid Sivakumar’s new Juggernaut puzzles, which specifically foreground South Asian culture and content, and by the Queer Qrosswords project, which has sought to raise money for LGBTQ+ causes. I think there’s a ton of room for more culture-specific work like this, created by people from the cultures in question.
Another thing we can all do to help is to continue to encourage more new diverse folk to get involved in constructing. I would estimate that three quarters of submissions to Crucinova still come from straight white men. All submissions are welcome…but what can we do to empower everyone else? How do we continue to deconstruct unspoken assumptions about who is and isn’t allowed to do this work? It’s an endless project in which we are all involved.
[The diabolical grid from Michael Buerke’s Quadripoint puzzle,
one of the free sample puzzles on the Crucinova website.]
4. What’s next for Lisa Bunker? What’s next for Crucinova?
Crosswords are actually not my main gig. I’m a writer first and foremost. At the moment I have two books out on submission, one a Young Adult fantasy with gender-revolutionary elements, the other a pointed political novel for adults about what we all went through together in the year 2020.
I also have an exciting new collaboration in the works about which I’m not yet at liberty to say anything specific, and I have ideas for three or four more books in the pipeline. So, my plan for the foreseeable future is to just keep writing, while also keeping Crucinova humming along, turning out an excellent puzzle each week.
As for Crucinova, it is still in its early stages, so for now the plan is to keep trying to grow the business. I’ve committed to paying my constructors, so I need a certain number of subscribers to break even, and so far we are some hundreds of memberships away from that goal.
Long term, if we manage to become self-sustaining, I can imagine putting out books of Crucinova grids, and possibly some special projects – spearheading the effort to get a crossword emoji, for example. Crucinova is a business, and I think it’s crucial for businesses to find a way to give back, so as soon as we have any profits to share, I’ll be wanting to find a way to share them.
5. What’s one piece of advice you would offer fellow solvers, aspiring constructors/setters, and puzzle enthusiasts?
To solvers I would say, please consider paying for your puzzles. I know that many excellent constructors are offering their work for free, which is their right and which benefits us all, but at the same time, constructing is an art, and I think artists should be paid for their work.
My advice to constructors comes from what I’ve learned transitioning from constructor to editor. When you’re making puzzles, you are free to imagine all kinds of wild and amazing things. Coolness of concept can become an end in itself, and I totally get that. But when you are selecting and editing puzzles, you have to think about giving solvers a satisfying puzzle experience. I get so many submissions to which my response has to be, I’m amazed by what you’ve made here, but I can’t see how to turn it into something fun and fair for my subscribers. So the advice is, think of the solver.
To puzzle enthusiasts everywhere, of whatever stripe, I would simply say, I feel you. I share your geeky joy. Let’s keep doing what we love, and keep lifting each other up.
A huge thank you to Lisa for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for updates on all of her various projects, and be sure to check out Crucinova for some very cool, experimental, and outside-the-box puzzles. Whatever she and the Crucinova constructors cook up next, you know it’s going to be great.
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