5 Questions for Crossword Constructor Mollie Cowger!

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!

This feature is all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them.

And this marks the third edition of a new series of interviews where we turn our eyes to the future of crosswords. Instead of interviewing established talents in the field, I’ve been reaching out to new and up-and-coming constructors and asking them to share their experiences as a nascent cruciverbalist.

And we’re excited to welcome Mollie Cowger as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Less than a year into her crossword career, Mollie Cowger has already built a reputation for creative themes, strong cluing, and well-constructed grids. Heck, she made my list of favorite clues of the year with “Protector of the crown?” for ENAMEL.

Her puzzles have appeared in Matt Gaffney’s Weekly Crossword Contest, Matthew Stock’s Happy Little Puzzles, and several times in the USA Today crossword, and that list will be growing by leaps and bounds in the near future.

Mollie 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 Mollie Cowger

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

My mom has always been an avid crossword solver, so I got started young. I’ve solved crosswords (originally just NYT, now many others) with varying degrees of regularity since at least high school (so, 2010-ish). I’ve been messing around with construction for a few years, but didn’t start devoting serious time and energy to it until summer 2020. My published debut was in October 2020 with a meta crossword for Matt Gaffney’s Weekly Crossword Contest.

2. What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle? What do you most enjoy — or try hardest to avoid — when constructing your own?

I love a good a-ha moment; I love a puzzle that makes me laugh; I love seeing pop culture that’s in my wheelhouse; I love learning new things. There are so many ways a puzzle can be great! I also think “greatness” is a subjective judgment. I’ve solved many puzzles that are technically impressive and thoughtfully constructed that just don’t vibe with me for whatever reason. But that’s fine! Not everyone has to like every puzzle.

When I’m making a puzzle, I love having an entry where I know there’s great wordplay to be found, and then having my own constructor aha moment when I finally land on it. I try to put things in my puzzles that I would be excited to see as a solver, or that I can imagine someone else being excited to see.

I try to use “do I think people who know this will be happy to see it” as a guiding question for proper noun-ish fill and cluing, rather than “do I think everyone will know this.” As many others have pointed out more eloquently than I can, trying to guess what “everyone” will know tends to reinforce existing inequalities.

3. Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others? Who inspires you as a constructor?

I don’t keep track of favorite clues, but I do keep a folder of favorite puzzles. Some recent-ish additions to that folder include Rachel Fabi’s June 1st, 2020 USA Today puzzle (“6/1”), Erik Agard’s February 1st & 2nd 2021 Universal puzzles, and Paolo Pasco’s blog puzzle “Entry-Level Stuff”. I don’t want to spoil them, so I won’t explain why they’re great. Go solve them!

There are so many constructors I admire and am inspired by that it feels foolish to try to name them all. It’s phenomenal how many people are making puzzles these days, and it seems like the community is only continuing to grow, which is wonderful.

[Her tag team solving is next-level.]

4. What’s next for Mollie Cowger?

Puzzling, gardening, maybe finishing knitting a half-done scarf that’s been taunting me for years (that one’s pretty aspirational), getting that sweet sweet COVID vaccine needle into my arm as soon as I’m eligible. In the longer term? Who knows!

5. What’s one piece of advice you would offer fellow solvers, aspiring constructors/setters, and puzzle enthusiasts?

If you’re thinking of diving into constructing, you should absolutely do it– the community is filled with kind people who will help you along. And, more broadly, don’t forget to have fun.

A huge thank you to Mollie for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for all of her crossword endeavors, and be sure to check out her puzzle blog Crosswords From Outer Space for new puzzles every other Monday! Whatever she creates next, I’m sure it will be terrific.

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Puzzle Plagiarism?

[Image courtesy of PlagiarismToday.com.]

Today’s post isn’t the usual Follow-Up Friday fare. Instead of returning to a previous subject, I’d like to discuss a topic that I expect I’ll be returning to in Follow-Up Friday form in the near future.

There is a certain pride and sense of accomplishment you experience as a puzzler when you come up with an exciting, innovative, unexpected theme idea for a puzzle, or when you pen a terrific clue for a word. Whether the wordplay is spot on or you’ve simply found a way to reinvigorate a tired bit of crosswordese, you feel like you’re adding something to the ever-expanding crossword lexicon, leaving a mark on the world of puzzles.

Unfortunately, there’s also the flip side of that coin, and those who would pilfer the hard work of others for their own gain. And in a story broken by the team at FiveThirtyEight, there may be something equally unsavory going on behind the scenes of the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword.

You can check out the full story, but in short, an enterprising programmer named Saul Pwanson created a searchable database of crossword puzzles that identified similarities in published crosswords, and it uncovered an irregularly high number of repeated entries, grids, and clues in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are edited by Timothy Parker.

More than 60 puzzles feature suspicious instances of repetition — the word “plagiarism” comes to mind, certainly — and it has sparked an investigation. In fact, only a day after the story first broke, Universal Uclick (which owns both the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword) stated that the subject of the investigation, Parker himself, “has agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.”

I’ve heard that oversight of the USA Today crossword has already passed to another editor of note in the crossword world, constructor Fred Piscop (author of last Wednesday’s New York Times crossword), but I wonder if more examples of crossword duplication are lurking out there.

With resources like XWord Info and the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project out there, the history of crosswords is becoming more and more accessible and searchable. I can’t help but wonder if more scandals are lurking down the pike.

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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!