5 Questions for Author and Crucinova Editor Lisa Bunker

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.


dailypopwsicon

Have you checked out our special summer deals yet? You can find them on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search! Check them out!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

The Best Puzzle Solvers in Young Adult Fiction

In the past, we have assembled super-teams of the best puzzle solvers in horror films, television, and literature. The goal was to highlight characters who stand out, the ones you’d want on your side, because they’re clever, decisive, and immensely capable.

In the fourth installment in this delightful series, we turn our attention to books for young adult readers, seeking out the quickest minds and the deftest problem solvers from the printed page.

So let’s meet (or revisit) some wickedly bright minds from teen-centric reads.


nancy drew

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Nancy Drew

Originally created as a female counterpart to the Hardy Boys, detective Nancy Drew has largely eclipsed them at this point, cementing her reputation as one of the most prominent teen detectives in literature. Nancy’s interest in numerous fields — psychology, language, and many others — served her well as she dove headlong into each case.

Her gift for association — making connections others miss — gave her a leg-up in locating clues and building cases before her lawyer father and the local police could do so. The criminal element in River Heights never left a puzzle that the diligent and outspoken Nancy couldn’t solve.

hermione-granger

[Image courtesy of Claire Fox Writes.]

Hermione Granger, Harry Potter series

When you’re a student of magic at one of the most dangerous schools in the world, you need to be sharp and ready. And Hermione Granger has those qualities in abundance. As studious as they come, Hermione is one of the puzzliest characters in modern literature. She brewed the notoriously difficult Polyjuice Potion, solved Professor Snape’s potion riddle, and deduced that Remus Lupin was a werewolf.

She’s as comfortable bending time to enhance her coursework (and save a few lives) as she is battling the gossip and lies of the treacherous Rita Skeeter. Numerous mysteries surrounding Hogwarts and Voldemort are solved by the trio of Ron, Harry, and Hermione, but without the stalwart and clever Miss Granger, Ron and Harry would’ve been out of luck.

wide window

[Image courtesy of Thrifty Teachers.]

Violet Baudelaire, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events

The eldest of the three Baudelaire orphans, Violet has the most mechanical mind of the trio. She is a prolific inventor, making marvelous contraptions out of whatever’s handy, and often getting her and her siblings out of dangerous situations in the process. Pursued by the malevolent and greedy Count Olaf, Violet outwits Olaf on more than one occasion, paying close attention to him and tailoring her behavior accordingly.

Whether she’s inventing a grappling hook to save her sister or picking a lock to find evidence against Count Olaf, Violet has a mind made for puzzles, whether she’s putting things together or taking them apart. As imaginative as she is capable, no mechanical brain teaser could stymie her for long.

ender game

[Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions.]

Ender Wiggin, Ender’s Game series

Although Ender’s story is not as happy as some of the others in this list, as mistreated and manipulated as he is throughout the first book, he should absolutely be counted among the best puzzlers in young adult literature. He is a phenomenal tactician, first in laser tag competitions in zero gravity, then later in simulated interstellar combat scenarios as part of his command training.

Ender uses his cleverness to circumvent the final test and win an unwinnable battle. And when he discovers that the battle was NOT simulated, and he had in fact won a war through his clever ruthlessness, he turns his puzzly mind to figuring out the mistakes that led to the war in the first place. As his adventures continue, he unravels numerous mysteries, often saving lives in the process.

ready player one

[Image courtesy of Goodreads.]

Parzival, Aech, and Art3mis, Ready Player One

In a virtual world known as the OASIS — a fully immersive Internet where work, school, and recreation are conducted — the characters of Ready Player One are on the ultimate puzzle hunt. For five years, the prize has remained unclaimed, no matter how expansive or expensive the methods employed to find it. Entire corporations are dedicated to solving it, because the prize is nothing less than control of the OASIS itself.

Which makes it all the more impressive that game and puzzle-loving teenagers are the ones to uncover several of the keys needed to complete the hunt. They are clever, determined, and resourceful puzzlers who combine a thirst for knowledge, top-notch gaming skills, and impressive deductive reasoning to accomplish the seemingly impossible.

westing game

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Turtle Wexler, The Westing Game

When you find yourself — and everyone else in your apartment building — on the list of possible heirs for a dead millionaire’s fortune, you know something strange is going on. And if it’s a race to a fortune predicated on solving an intricate puzzle, solving a murder, and uncovering a mysterious secret, then Turtle Wexler is the person you want on your side.

Possessing a keen mind and some serious analytical chops — after all, she plays the stock market at 13 years old — Turtle’s intellect is nearly as quick as her shin-kicking feet. Another strong tactician, Turtle takes advantage of opportunities (and creating a few of her own), eventually winning the Westing Game.

queen's thief

[Image courtesy of Christina Reads YA.]

Eugenides, The Queen’s Thief Series

The puzzles that Eugenides concerns himself with are far different than the ones tackled by other characters on this list. Eugenides is a master strategist, a chess player who must treat entire countries as his gameboard. Eugenides is observant and patient, playing out slow-burn tactics that can take months or years to come to fruition, all in the hopes of protecting those he serves.

It’s quite something to solve a puzzle in front of you, but it’s something else entirely to solve the next five puzzles before they’ve even shown themselves. Over the course of The Queen’s Thief series, Eugenides shows a tremendous understanding of how others think, what motivates them, and who can be trusted. There’s not a logic problem or a brain teaser around that Eugenides couldn’t plot his way past.

benedict

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Sticky, Constance, Kate, and Reynie, The Mysterious Benedict Society

If you’re looking for the most overtly puzzly quartet in young adult lit, this should be your first stop. These books are loaded to the brim with puzzles and mysteries, and this fearsomely brilliant foursome is equipped to handle any riddle, cipher, or brain teaser in their way.

Whether it’s Reynie’s logical deduction skills, Kate’s incisive ability to find shortcuts, Sticky’s memory and recall, or Constance’s penchant for finding patterns in plain sight, the sinister plans of Mr. Curtain (and any other puzzly evildoer out there) don’t stand a chance.


Did I miss any world-class puzzlers from famous (or obscure) works of young adult lit? Let me know in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

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!

5 Questions with Author Elizabeth Singer Hunt!

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 I’m excited to welcome Elizabeth Singer Hunt as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Elizabeth Singer Hunt is the author behind the globe-spanning Jack Stalwart books, a young adult series featuring a nine-year-old secret agent, with over two million books sold to her credit! She’s recently expanded into the world of puzzles with the publication of the Secret Agent Training Manual, a terrific introductory guide to codecracking and concealment.

Anagrams, ciphers, scytales, and encoding with other letters, numbers, or symbols are all explained with easy-to-understand instructions and plenty of examples. She even provides sample encryptions to crack, letting readers practice their newfound skills and techniques, giving young readers the chance to become their own Jack Stalwart-style secret agents!

Elizabeth 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 Elizabeth Singer Hunt

1. What inspired the adventures of Jack Stalwart?

As a young girl, I struggled to read. It wasn’t so much that reading was a problem for me. I couldn’t find any books that I identified with. I grew up in a small town in Louisiana, and spent most of my weekends fishing, crabbing, playing with frogs and tossing around footballs. Basically, I was a tomboy. It was difficult to find books that I could relate to since most of the ‘girl’ books were about friendship issues, horses and fairies.

At around that same time, Raiders of the Lost Ark opened in theatres. That movie introduced me to archaeology and adventure, and showed me that there was a world outside of Louisiana. As a southern girl, I had no idea that places like ‘Nepal’ and ‘Peru’ even existed!

When I was in my late twenties, I decided to take a crack at writing a children’s book series. I drew upon my childhood experiences and inspirations to create the series’ main character, nine-year-old Jack Stalwart. Jack moonlights as a junior secret agent for the Global Protection Force, or GPF. In every book, he’s sent on a mission to an exotic locale in order to protect one of the world’s most precious treasures.

Millions of children around the world have fallen in love with Jack, largely because they identify with him and want to be like him. He’s like a pint-size Indiana Jones, sprinkled with a bit of James Bond and written for the nine-year-old ‘reluctant reader’ me.

Did they, in turn, inspire the Secret Agent Training Manual, or was that meant to be a standalone creation?

Over the years, I have received thousands of emails from children asking how they can become a secret agent like Jack. So I thought it would be fun to create a series that introduced them to basic secret agent/spy skills. Code-breaking seemed a natural place to start! The first book in the series is called How to Make and Break Top Secret Messages. Subsequent books will discuss basic spy craft and the history of intelligence gathering.

2. Are you a puzzle fan yourself, or did your aptitude with encryption and codebreaking puzzles come out of your research and work as a writer?

A little bit of both! I have always had an affinity and aptitude for word puzzles. My favorite game growing up was Boggle and to this day, I am the family Boggle Champion! Recently, my children and I discovered Bananagrams.

It’s right up my alley, since it relies on the ability to quickly arrange and re-arrange letter tiles into words. That being said, I didn’t know too much about the world of cryptography (except for some of the basics) until I began researching for this book.

Do you have a favorite method of encryption or one that didn’t make it into the SATM?

I am fascinated by all of the methods of encryption featured in the book because each has its use depending upon the situation. I suppose my favorite is the ‘cipher’ because it’s ever-changing and difficult for the average person to solve without a key.

3. Let’s talk a little bit about your writing process, since composing a novel is a puzzle in itself. Do you start with characters, plot, certain scenes in your head already? How do you approach the process of writing a book?

Good question! It depends upon the type of book that I am writing.

For my (fiction) Jack Stalwart chapter book series, I have a fairly unorthodox way of writing. I establish the setting, mission and villain and then I start writing! Everything is free-flowing, and little is planned. I love movies and am extremely influenced by film, so in a way I am writing as though I am watching a film play out before my eyes.

For the (non-fiction) Secret Agent Training Manual book, things needed to be a lot more structured. Research was done, notes were taken and the book was organized from the most basic cryptographic methods to those that took a bit more time and thought to decode. Most of this book was handwritten, while many of my fiction books are typed onto a computer screen from the get-go.

4. What’s next for Elizabeth Singer Hunt?

I’m excited to say that Costco is planning an exclusive nationwide launch of the Jack Stalwart series in volume form next month, i.e. in April of 2016. That means that children across the country will be able to enjoy the Jack Stalwart series four books at a time in a specially produced keepsake volume.

Besides this news and the launch of the Secret Agent Training Manual book, I’ve also recently published the first book in a new middle grade series called Swamp Mysteries: The Treasure of Jean Lafitte. The series chronicles the adventures of four twelve-year-old friends as they solve paranormal mysteries in the swamps and bayous of Louisiana. It’s a bit like Scooby-Doo with a southern twist.

5. If you could give the readers, writers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

As my mother always says, “There’s always a solution to everything. Persevere!”

When I first had the idea for the Jack Stalwart series, I shopped it around to various agents and publishers and they promptly rejected it. I could have felt sorry for myself and given up. But I believed in the idea and in myself. So, I found a solution to the problem. I published it myself, i.e. hired an editor, illustrator, designer and found a local printer to produce the books. I printed thousands of Jack Stalwart books, and sold them personally to as many booksellers as I could find.

After five months of hard work, the series caught the attention of an agent and the head of children’s fiction at Random House UK. (I was living in England at the time). Random House acquired the Jack Stalwart series, and commissioned me to write a total of fourteen books.

The rest as they say is history. Had I listened to the naysayers, Jack Stalwart never would have existed and I never would have had a career as an author. Thankfully, I took my mother’s advice. It’s the same advice that I would give to anyone with a dream. Never give up. Be resourceful, and persevere.


A huge thank you to Elizabeth for her time. Be sure to visit her website for updates on her latest projects. I cannot wait to see what she has in store for us next!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

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!