Listen With Others

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Listener No 4533, Telling Lies: A Setter’s Blog by Somniloquist

Posted by Listen With Others on 6 January 2019

I came across B.S. Johnson, “Britain’s one-man literary avant-garde”, a number of years ago when a friend recommended one of his later novels to me, Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry. Since then, his books have always been in the back of my mind as possible crossword themes, with their unusual content and layout: Christie Malry lives his life by the principles of double-entry bookkeeping, The Unfortunates is presented in a box in several sections which can be read in any order and Albert Angelo has holes cut in the pages to reveal later parts of the story.

When I was mulling over ideas for my second Listener, I quickly settled on Albert Angelo and its cut-outs, which would provide good fodder for an endgame. I assumed The Times wouldn’t be willing to print some extra Listener content in amongst the sudoku on the page behind the crossword, so I had to find a way to fold the crossword to make the reveal work. I changed the shape of the grid from my default 13×13 to 14×12, so there was a natural fold line and the proportions were somewhat book-like. I toyed with making the theme the author himself and including references to other books, but was wary of trying to cram too much in and ending with a confusing treatment of quite an obscure subject.

I started with hopes of being able to use thematic words (cut out) on the left to reveal a long quote on the right, but quickly found this was far too restrictive to fill the grid. It would also have meant some very fiddly cutting out and holes that reached the edge of the page. So I settled on just the title and author being revealed using non-thematic words. I fed this all into the software I’d written for my first Listener (no 4466, X XX XXX) and started sifting through the possible grids to find a satisfying set of words – not too many obscure rock types or Scottish relatives.

Once I had a filled grid, I needed to work out how to provide the instructions and the words to cut out. For the sake of simplicity (for me and for the solver), I decided on an additional letter in wordplay to spell out the instructions (having spent a very long time wrestling with deleting letters from clues for my first Listener effort) and extra words in clues to indicate what should be cut out. Pleasingly, the message “cut out extra words then fold” required an extra letter in exactly half the clues, which made the preamble a bit more elegant.

I looked into including more thematic content, as it was fairly light, but the internet (my memory of the book not being up to scratch) didn’t turn up anything I felt was usable. It did give me an initial idea for a title for the puzzle: Alberto Angelo is described as a failed architect, so I looked for an anagram of architect and found The Arctic. Fortunately, I decided against using this dubious reverse cryptic as the title, as I think there’d be a large number of confused people at this point. I ultimately used part of a quote from the book, which highlights the author’s ethos: that “telling stories is telling lies”. This was obscure enough not to lead the solver directly to the theme (even via Google), but could fairly easily be linked to it when revealed.

After submission, I was pleasantly surprised to wait less than a year to get the email from Roger confirming publication – I think they were keen for an easier puzzle to give everyone a pre-Christmas break! The vetters’ eagle eyes had spotted a few clues that needed tweaking. Primarily, these were where I’d used a connecting word between definition and wordplay (IN, FROM, etc) that incorrectly implied the two were equivalent, when the thematic extra letter made them different: not something I’d considered when writing them.

If you want to find out more about B.S. Johnson, there’s an excellent biography by Jonathan Coe called Like A Fiery Elephant.

I’ve now used up the two theme ideas I’ve had, so I’m on the lookout for inspiration for Listener #3…

Happy New Year!

Somniloquist.
 

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