Peter Turchi ex­plores the mys­ter­ies of mak­ing and solv­ing puzzles

Pasatiempo - - NEWS -

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.”

Peter Turchi

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