This week I'm very excited to present a guest puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) by Alison Ohringer. This one's a breezy solve with some classic wordplay. It's Ali's very first published puzzle, but you'll undoubtedly be seeing her name much more in the future. After you solve the puzzle, check out the bottom of this post for a little Q&A to learn more about her (emphasis on the after, since it does include spoilers for the puzzle). Enjoy!
Will: Tell us a little about yourself - when you're not solving or constructing crosswords, what do you like to do?
Ali: I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley in Infectious Diseases and Global Health. I spend most of my time doing research on hepatitis C and various other infectious diseases and teaching some undergrad courses. I live in a co-op with 25 other grad students (similar to a kibbutz but with fewer farm animals) where a few of us solve the NYT crossword together almost every day and cook/eat communally, which is lots of fun. I really enjoy weight lifting and trying to keep my houseplants alive as well.
Will: What's your history with crosswords? How long have you been solving, and how did you get into constructing?
Ali: I started solving a few years ago and quickly found myself reading the Rex Parker blog every day. I followed "Rex" (Michael Sharp) on Twitter - highly recommend because he is hilarious - and emailed him in February after he tweeted to anyone looking to start constructing. Just a couple months prior, I'd decided to stop thoroughly reading the news every day because it was too depressing, so the thought of constructing seemed like a great way to spend this new free time. Michael pointed me towards a Facebook group called "Puzzle Collaboration Directory," which I cannot recommend highly enough for anyone that wants to get into constructing. I started by making a puzzle with one of my housemates and then sent it to a list of "test solvers" who provided me with helpful and supportive feedback; I had indeed broken almost every rule there is to break (more than one dupe in the puzzle, >78 words and themeless, corners with only one method of entry, overly obscure words... the works) and it was a great learning experience. Erik Agard in particular has answered every tiny, nitpicky question I've had and has been an incredible mentor since day one. We've even co-constructed a few puzzles and let me tell you, he really is masterful.
Will: In an encouraging development, many people have become more aware of issues of representation (gender and otherwise) in crosswords lately. Have your experiences as a woman getting into the world of crosswords informed your approach to constructing?
Ali: Being a member of a group that is underrepresented in the field makes me hyper-aware of how my actions might impact other women or other groups that are traditionally underrepresented in constructing. It ends up being a vicious cycle - I know women are underrepresented, so I want to submit only the very best work so that more women get published in the future, which means I don't submit things that are good but maybe not perfect because I don't want an editor to see it, dislike it, and then think poorly of women constructors in general. Then, I often end up seeing puzzles published in major venues that have the same imperfect word in my grid that prevented me from submitting my puzzle altogether (see ONER, HAR, etc). When there's already a touch of Imposter Syndrome - which likely exists to some degree for any brand-new constructor - seeing that only about one NYT crossword per week has a female constructor makes that feeling grow stronger. I'm very grateful for the Facebook group that has allowed me to get into this field at all and I would say my feelings echo the group's pinned post [written by Erik]: "it's often said that talent is equally distributed, but opportunities are not. this group's foundational intent is to rectify that inequity for women, people of color, and folks from other groups underrepresented in the puzzle world. if you don't find yourself described in the previous sentence, please know that you're equally welcome here; please also respect that priority, and keep it in mind when you're navigating this group." Groups that are underrepresented in constructing have so much to offer and I'm grateful for those who are willing to go out of their way to help new constructors like me in an effort to narrow the divide.
Also, slightly tangential: if I'm cluing a word that might have something to do with a woman or a person of color or any other marginalized group, I try to intentionally include their name and accomplishments in my clue.
Will: There's a lot of stuff to like in this puzzle - what part(s) are you proudest of?
Ali: Thank you! I like how BASENJI/DEJA VU cross at the J, that the clue for NUDES wasn't weird, and that I found some neat anagrams. And the clue for my namesake (ALI) was fun to come up with.