- How would you describe yourself in one sentence?
I’m a recovering mathematician and composer with a nasty habit of solving and writing hard puzzles.
- When did you start solving and making puzzles?
I started solving casually by helping my parents finish the Sunday crossword in the Washington Post. Then when I was in college, I saw a link to the MIT Mystery Hunt from a friend’s web page. I had no idea how to solve any of the puzzles, but it looked like the best thing ever. I made it to my first Mystery Hunt in 2003 and got hooked.
As a constructor, I started out writing warm-up puzzles for my Mystery Hunt team in 2006 or so. Again, it was a casual thing for a while, until 2011, when I decided to try to write a puzzle a day for the month of June. After that, I started posting puzzles to my website on a regular basis. I got my first commercially published puzzles in the sadly short-lived Will Shortz’s WordPlay, and when that venture folded, I decided to keep going on my own.
- What is your favorite kind of puzzle to solve/create?
Oh, so many possible answers! I love solving puzzle hunts of all types: the MIT Mystery Hunt, DASH, BAPHL, P&A Magazine, and so on. But if I had to pick a single type, I’d probably go with variety cryptics. Or metapuzzles.
In constructing, I have gravitated towards variety crosswords. Pathfinder is probably my go-to puzzle type at this point, but I also love the mind-bending challenge of putting together a Some Assembly Required.
- Tell us a little bit about Tortoiseshell Studio?
Well, Tortoiseshell Studio started off as Tortoiseshell Music, when I was working as a freelance composer. As I said earlier, I started posting puzzles to my site in 2011, and soon I realized I was having more enjoyment and success writing puzzles than I was writing music. So, since music was no longer the primary focus of my creative energy, I relaunched the site as Tortoiseshell Studio earlier this year. At the same time, I started offering my puzzles through Patreon, which has been quite rewarding.
The name stems from my nickname “Tortoise,” which is a weak rhyme on my last name. I have adopted this nickname in many different guises: as a math teacher at a summer program, as a composer, and as my nom in the National Puzzlers’ League. I have come to identify with the tortoise in some ways: shy and retiring, apt to retreat into my shell when threatened, but persistently plodding.
- A cryptic clue that always stayed with you?
Hidden assassin in Japan! (5)*
- Favorite constructor?
I’m a big fan of the folks writing puzzles for the Wall Street Journal: Mike Shenk, Patrick Berry, and Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon. I also love Kevin Wald’s ability to write a cryptic for any occasion.
- What do you like to do when you’re not doing puzzles?
When I’m not doing puzzles? I guess that happens sometimes…I was a musician before I was a puzzler, and that’s still important to me. Primarily contemporary classical and jazz, but lots of other genres too. I don’t perform as often as I used to, but I still enjoy that from time to time; my instruments include bass trombone, piano, and clarinet. I’m eclectic.
- If you could have dinner with one famous person who would choose?
If we restrict it to living people, I’d say Stephen Sondheim. I’m a fan of his shows, and I’d love to ask him about his role in the early history of cryptic crosswords and puzzle hunts in America.
- If you had a superpower what would it be?
Hmm. If I did have a superpower, it would probably be the ability to learn things quickly. If I could have a superpower, I’d go for the ability to stop time. I always wanted more hours in the day.
- What’s your personal motto?
I’m not sure I have a motto, but I strive to be compassionate, and to constantly improve.
*Answer: NINJA. I’m a big sucker good for &lit clues. This one is from “Inner Tube,” a puzzle by Roger Barkan, Dan Katz, and Chris Morse, from the 2000 MIT Mystery Hunt.
You can find a sampling of Nathan’s puzzles at tortoiseshellstudio.com/puzzles, and if you like what you see there, check out www.patreon.com/nathancurtis for his weekly puzzle packs.