Peter Turchi explores the mysteries of making and solving puzzles
Peter Turchi is the rare author who can sit at his desk doing crossword puzzles all day and still claim to be hard at work on a book project. His latest release, A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic (Trinity University Press) presents a series of interwoven essays exploring the relationship between writing and puzzle-solving. The wide-ranging connections he draws — jumping between the Navajo Code Talkers and the Kryptos statue at CIA headquarters, sleight of hand and poetry, and Gustav Mahler and Mark Twain — are convincing, provocative, and not infrequently funny, drawing the reader into a labyrinth of reflection where each turn brings a new surprise. Widening its appeal for readers of divergent backgrounds, the book also incorporates a number of classic and innovative puzzles along the way.
The author of several books of fiction and nonfiction, and a professor of creative writing at the University of Houston, Turchi gives a reading at Collected Works Bookstore on Saturday, Feb. 28. He spoke to Pasatiempo from his home in Houston before heading off to his writing class where the guest speaker was a magician.
Pasatiempo: There must have been a lot of puzzlesolving that went into creating A Muse and a Maze , primarily in terms of connecting the two central topics of puzzles and writing. Peter Turchi: Absolutely. I wish somebody had given me the problem to solve first. Instead, I was trying to compose it at the same time as I was trying to solve it. There was no obvious form for the book to take. It took quite a while before I figured out that puzzles were going to be a sort of dominant metaphor or analogy for the essays. For a while, I was writing about visual art and some other works that interested me. I hadn’t found what was holding it together. Even the title came late in the process. The book was just about
done, and I struggled with it for a long time. Happily, it helps me explain what the book is about, which is the tension between craft, or the rational part of writing, and the subconscious inspiration from the muse, or whatever you want to call it — the less explainable part of the process. Pasa: The wordplay in the title made me wonder if there are any hidden messages or puzzles within the book that you might be willing to hint at. Turchi: The whole time I worked on the book, I thought, “I wish I were really clever.” It would be wonderful if there were clever things hidden in the book. I’m not sure there is anything hidden that wouldn’t be apparent to anyone who reads carefully. Nothing is wildly mysterious. If you hold it up to the light, or put it in the freezer or something, I don’t think you’ll see a hidden message. Pasa: Though this book appeals to a broad readership — writers, readers, puzzle lovers, people interested in psychology — I get the feeling that you are most closely addressing the writer. Is that the case? Turchi: Yes. For however long it’s been now, 20 years, I’ve been teaching graduate fiction writers, so that’s the audience I most often address when I talk about craft. I set about writing this for people interested in developing their craft. But I hope the book is written so it’s accessible to those not actively engaged in writing, though that’s the primary audience. I think the first written response I got was from a magician. Coincidentally, he’s coming to my class today. He’s a magician on a book tour of his own. His name is Joshua Jay. He works out of New York but performs all over the world. He does a lot of close-up magic, but I don’t think he’ll be performing in class — if it’s possible for a magician not to perform. Pasa: You talk about how puzzles can be solved in solitude or in groups. Is this something you witness in action when teaching a group of MFA students? Turchi: I don’t know any great story or novel that’s been written by a workshop — a book written by 10 people. Some have been done for novelty. But certainly you can accelerate the learning process by showing your work to strangers who are inclined to see it the same way as you do. And sometimes you can get very direct and explicit advice: Try this or try that. Other times, it’s that the people responding tell you that you did or did not communicate what you wanted to communicate. If 10 people say not, you might recognize that you need to take a different approach. Pasa: Do you think the process of reading is similar to watching a magician — where some people want to be deceived and others want to unravel the illusion? Turchi: I remember sitting and watching television with my cousin when I was young, and him telling me what was going to happen because he recognized how the plot structure worked. Up to that moment, it had never crossed my mind to think ahead — which probably says more about me than him. If I told people [what comes next], then it had to be a pretty dismal narrative. Similarly, there are all kinds of readers — but, as I say in the book, we are each a few different kinds of reader. We can one day enjoy a certain kind of book and at another time enjoy a different kind. Pasa: Speaking of different kinds of literature, I love the passage that begins with Mark Twain’s notion of “The Sir Walter Scott Disease,” where you list the prejudices of great authors to show how the quality of all literature is subjective. Do you think the same schema for classifying literature, usually as high or low, can apply to puzzles? Turchi: I’m sure people could say that about the puzzles mathematicians and scientists solve that have real-world consequences. There’s also a pretty long history of engineers or mathematicians solving theoretical problems for the preparation it gives them for real-world problems. And I do think it’s possible to suggest that simply doing 30 books’ worth of medium Sudoku is kind of a dead end. Which is not to say that I haven’t done a book of Sudoku in my life. But I think ultimately that’s a mere diversion — and there are lots of other kinds of puzzles that force the brain into thinking in different ways.
What’s interesting is when people do the same puzzles differently. I was recording a radio essay, saying that some scientists believe doing puzzles helps ward off dementia, and others say it really isn’t so clear. The
I do think it’s possible to suggest that simply doing 30 books worth of medium Sudoku is kind of a dead end. Which is not to say that I haven’t done a book of Sudoku in my life, but I think ultimately that’s a mere diversion — and there are lots of other kinds of puzzles that force the brain into thinking in different ways. — Peter Turchi
The tangram is a Chinese puzzle in which seven tiles are combined to form specific shapes — a process similar to assembling a story out of fixed
elements like viewpoint and tense.
fellow who was the producer of the show pulled out a folded-up square from his pocket, and it was the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle. Only the top left corner was filled in, which I thought was odd. He said, Oh, I solve the puzzle in my head first, then try to fill it in by memory without looking back at the clues. I believe he was eighty-four. Pasa: Do you do the Sunday puzzle? Turchi: I usually take a crack at it, and get distracted sometimes, because I like to vary the puzzles I work on. Sometimes I’ll be engaged, then I’ll transfer my attention to a problem I’m trying to solve in a story. One of the reasons I wanted to think about puzzles is because I fear that they are a guilty pleasure that I may have devoted more time to than any adult should. A number of writers I know, in addition to the ones I mention in the book, also like to do puzzles, even though they often don’t talk about it. They seem a little embarrassed when I bring it up. Pasa: Is this puzzle-solving instinct reflected in their work? Turchi: I see some reflection. I don’t know, for instance, that Shakespeare did any puzzles, but certainly he gave himself the sonnet to play with for a long time because he wrote a great many of them. There had to be something about the pattern that inspired him both to work within it and work against it. I routinely ask people at readings whether they write and
Shakespeare found that he could immeasurably deepen the effect of his plays, that he could provoke in the audience and in himself a peculiarly passionate intensity of response, if he took out a key explanatory element,
thereby occluding the rationale, motivation, or ethical principle that accounted for the action that was to unfold. — author Stephen Greenblatt
whether they do puzzles. For this article, you probably have a number of inches or a word count, and a deadline, I’m sure. And with any luck, there’s an exciting quotation I can offer. Then there’s the informational details you have to work in. Pasa: So you have experience with journalism? Turchi: I did a lot of that once. Pasa: You’ve also published nonfiction and fiction. Do you write poetry? Turchi: Not that I would share, no. I wrote poetry when I was an undergraduate and even in graduate school — and, for whatever reason, that didn’t inspire my very best work. I am inclined toward narrative, though I love language and admire people whose prose seems particularly graceful and surprising. Pasa: So in the book, when you joke about puzzle-loving poets who hide their crosswords under the couch when someone walks in, you’d instead be shoving your sheaves of poetry under there. Turchi: Yes, but I’d probably burn them first.
Jim Sanborn’s “Kryptos,” sculpture on the grounds of the CIA complex in Langley, Virginia, contains four encypted messages, three of which were solved years ago. The fourth, with only 97 letters, has frustrated amateur sleuths, as well as NSA code crackers, for more than two decades. In 2010, concerned that he might not live to see the encryption decoded, Sanborn released the clue that six of the last 97 letters, when decrypted, spell “Berlin.” On November 20, 2014, he released a second clue indicating that the next word in the sequence is “clock.”