Sally is the newer constructor of the pair, having published her first crossword in Feb. 2020. She is also the author of the daily puzzle blog Sally’s Take on the USA Today Crossword, where she discusses each day’s USA Today puzzle in depth. Mary Lou had her first crossword published in June 2013 and has been a co-author on many puzzles over the past nine years. You may have seen one of her solo puzzles recently — she wrote the New York Times crossword for International Women’s Day on Tuesday, March 8. If you haven’t solved that puzzle yet, go check it out … and I encourage you to read her constructor notes about that puzzle.
Today’s puzzle, “Clockwork,” is the result of several back-and-forth exchanges between Sally, Mary Lou and myself dating back to October 2021. After reading through today’s solution, scroll down to read an interview with Sally and Mary Lou about their reflections on this puzzle and all things crosswords.
Sally and Mary Lou’s puzzle is inspired by today’s switch to Daylight Saving Time, using the central grid-spanning mnemonic SPRING FORWARD, FALL BACK at 68A: [Mnemonic device for changing your clocks, and a hint to this puzzle’s theme] to tie two trios of theme answers together. The first three theme answers contain circled synonyms of “spring” (meaning to jump) read forward, while the bottom three answers contain circled synonyms of “fall” (as in to literally fall down) read backward.
- 22A: [Apple chairman and former CEO of Genentech] is ARTHUR D. LEVINSON, which contains HURDLE.
- 31A: [Military subterfuge, perhaps] is STEALTH OPERATION, which contains HOP.
- 48A: [Twitter and TikTok, e.g.] is MOBILE APPS, which contains LEAP.
- 91A: [Stock-triggered moves] is STOP ORDERS, which contains a reversed DROP.
- 108A: [Flood plain of the American South] is MISSISSIPPI DELTA, which contains a reversed DIP.
- 121A: [They may be shot over several hours] is TIME-LAPSE VIDEOS, which contains a reversed DIVE.
What especially amused me about this theme is that when Sally and Mary Lou first sent me the idea back in October, I had just finished writing my own time change-themed puzzle (simply called “Time Change”), which ran on the “fall back” date of Nov. 7. It seemed like the perfect moment of serendipity that they were brainstorming a theme about Daylight Saving Time, and they specifically requested for it to be published on the “spring forward” date of March 13. Beyond the theme, I liked seeing fresh answers like GO NUDE, OUR TEAM, SOLO ACT, TOSTITOS, NABISCO, BEER SNOB, TRIFLES, and HOT SAUCE; as well as Sally and Mary Lou’s playful and interesting clues for answers like RUT at 99A: [It’s regrettable for a routine or a road], PUN at 9D: [The Ben & Jerry’s flavor Oat of This Swirled, e.g.], and POGO at 51D: [Extreme ___ (action sport with a specially designed stick)].
Now let’s hear from Sally and Mary Lou themselves! Please enjoy this interview with the constructors, conducted by email.
Evan: The question that every constructor gets: How did you first get into writing crosswords?
Sally: I have enjoyed solving crosswords, and all kinds of puzzles, for as long as I can remember, but hadn’t given any thought to creating them until 2018. At that time I had been writing children’s curriculum on a freelance basis for 13 years, but, for a variety of reasons I was looking for something else to do. One day I was sitting in my kitchen solving the New York Times crossword, and the thought popped into my head, “I wonder who makes these; I wonder if I could make these?” It turns out the answer is yes, I can! Upon researching the process of crossword constructing, I eventually discovered the fabulous crossword community. That has been a huge bonus.
Mary Lou: When I started solving puzzles on a regular basis, then following the blogs and reading about the constructors, I was inspired to try constructing. Connecting with mentors really helped.
Evan: Can you explain a little about how you two collaborated on this puzzle? For instance, how did you originally come up with the theme, how did you each handle filling the grid and writing the clues, etc.? (I’ve only very rarely collaborated with another constructor on a crossword, so I’m curious how you went about dividing up the work.)
Sally: We’ve collaborated on several puzzles together and it seems that each time the work gets divided slightly differently, though we each contribute to each step: brainstorming possible themes, finding possible theme answers, filling the grid, and cluing.
Mary Lou: Sally suggested a SPRING FORWARD and/or FALL BACK theme. I had suggested this same complete phrase as a puzzle idea to [USA Today crossword editor] Erik Agard a few years back. I had already done a fair amount of research on possible theme answers and shared those with Sally. We continued corresponding via a long chain of emails and several email chains, about possible theme answers and grids. Once we agreed on the theme answers and a grid, Sally set up a Google Sheets document for clues. We both participated fully in all aspects of the theme development, puzzle construction and cluing. We didn’t really divide the work per se; an equitable distribution just evolved through our back-and-forth.
Evan: Sally, you’ve been writing the daily puzzle blog Sally’s Take on the USA Today Crossword since June 2020. Are you enjoying that, and what have been the most rewarding and/or most challenging aspects of maintaining a daily blog for you?
Sally: I love writing the blog! Although I kind of stumbled upon doing it (the “Why?” page on my blog explains how that came about), it combines many things I’m passionate about: crosswords, research, and writing. Writing about the USA Today crosswords brings me great joy, and I look forward to solving and writing about each day’s puzzle. The most challenging aspect of writing a daily blog is that it’s daily. Fortunately, I have a fantastic group of guest-bloggers that fill in for me when needed.
Evan: As a follow-up, you seem to take a different approach from other crossword blogs, less focused on analyzing the particulars of a theme or a grid and more about describing interesting things that you learned from solving it — for instance, your “Geography review,” where you pick a handful of geography-based answers in a USA Today puzzle and provide some interesting facts. I’m just wondering what inspired that approach. Do you have a strong interest in geography? Is it to help remember geographic information if it shows up in a puzzle again?
Sally: When I decided to start blogging, I set some goals for myself. I wanted my blog to be informative, conversational, and kind. These goals happen to form the acronym ICK, which amused me, so I kept them even after I noticed that. My approach is generally that there are enjoyable aspects of every crossword, and I (almost) always learn something new from each solve. I didn’t start out having a “Geography Review” section, but when I began blogging I noticed the puzzles contain quite a bit of geography. That happens to be an area I’m weak in, so I decided to highlight it for my own benefit, and hopefully others would benefit as well. I’ve definitely learned a lot about Lake Erie and Asia!
Evan: Mary Lou, you’ve had both themed and themeless puzzles published in several venues. I’m wondering if you have a preference between building a themed or themeless puzzle and, if so, what is it you like more about one form over the other?
Mary Lou: I don’t really have a preference for themed or themeless puzzles. It’s whatever strikes my fancy, an idea from something I’ve read or heard, or a seed phrase, that impels me forward.
Evan: Many of your previously published puzzles have been collaborations with other constructors (with Jeff Chen, Erik Agard, Ellen Leuschner, and others). What is it you enjoy in particular about collaborative crosswords?
Mary Lou: Brainstorming with others, learning how they approach the development of a puzzle theme or grid, then proceed with cluing, can be a gratifying experience.
Evan: I’m curious if either of you currently work on constructing or solving variety puzzles? I ask because Mary Lou co-authored a variety puzzle with David Steinberg in the New York Times a few years ago (a diagramless on Oct. 23, 2016; solution here). Do you enjoy a particular form of variety puzzle more than others?
Mary Lou: I am not currently constructing or solving variety puzzles. I had several in the works at one point, one of which ended up as a New York Times Valentine’s Day grid. I was tickled to learn from a contestant that it had been used for the 19th annual Westport Public Library Crossword Contest. It was enjoyable and educational to work with David Steinberg on the one variety puzzle I had published. The grid art was my idea. The theme answers were his.
Sally: I haven’t constructed any variety puzzles, though I do enjoy many kinds of puzzles … maybe someday!
Evan: Do you have a particular style or a set of interests that most inspire you when you’re building crosswords?
Sally: Although I’ve constructed both themed and themeless puzzles, I find myself gravitating toward themed puzzles. I will go with any theme I can think of that will work, but when it comes to filling the grid, I try to highlight underrepresented groups and cultures whenever possible. Since I have a science background, I also like to incorporate science fill and clues when possible.
Mary Lou: No particular style or set of interests that inspires me. It’s pretty much serendipity.
Evan: Do you have a favorite crossword that you’ve written?
Sally: I still definitely consider myself a beginning to intermediate constructor, and therefore I am thrilled with any puzzle that makes it to completion and gets published, including this one! That being said, I’ll always have a soft spot for my first published crossword, the Presidents’ Day (Feb. 17) 2020 New York Times crossword.
Mary Lou: I think my favorite crossword is the first that was accepted by the New York Times (though not the first they ran). It was fun collaborating and learning from Jeff Chen. It was such a thrill to get that acceptance. It was well received by solvers. This one ranks pretty high too, for a variety of reasons. It was a pleasure to work and learn from Sally and you. It is my Washington Post debut. It is a playful and timely puzzle. My hope is that solvers have enjoyed it as well.
Evan: Are there other upcoming puzzles or general crossword activities of yours that you’d like to mention?
Sally: I have a puzzle coming out in the June edition of the Crosswords Club that has a theme I think is particularly fun, and happens to be the first Sunday-sized puzzle I constructed.
Mary Lou: I would like to mention a puzzle I co-constructed with Sally, “It’s About Time,” featuring important milestones for women. It is in the Crosswords Club March puzzle packet. Editor Patti Varol chose to feature a month of female constructed puzzles for Women’s History Month. I was honored to be among them. I was also pleased to construct the New York Times puzzle for International Women’s Day (solution here).
Thanks very much for the duo guest crossword, Sally and Mary Lou! I look forward to solving more of your puzzles down the road.