Pre-Shortzian Constructor Interviews

[Scroll down to read earlier interviews.]


INTERVIEW WITH JOHN M. SAMSON



I would like to thank David for his Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project.  It’s interesting to see how crosswords have evolved from 1942, when Margaret Farrar first edited that New York Times crossword, to today’s daily and Sunday challengers.

I’m sure many of those oldie clues and answers seem strange to today’s solvers, and I’m sure many wonder why crosswordese and esoterica seemed to permeate those grids.  Perhaps some of this can be rationalized by taking the Wayback Machine to earlier decades and see what working conditions were like for crossword constructors and editors.

The year was 1977, and Eugene T. Maleska had just become crossword editor of The New York Times.  I had been solving New York Times puzzles for a few years prior and decided to take a crack at making my own crossword.  I was in awe of Will Weng and his group of puzzlers.  I never would have dreamed of submitting to him, of trying to break into that elite group.  When Will Weng retired, I quickly slapped together a crossword and mailed it into Eugene T. Maleska, the new crossword editor at The New York Times.  Unfortunately, my puzzle was a complete disaster.  It violated every golden crossword rule.   But . . . I received a handwritten letter from Eugene T. Maleska himself . . . stunned that he took the time to personally answer my letter.  “Don’t ever submit to me again.  Why waste your time and mine?” he wrote.  “Why not?” I thought to myself.  “Why the hell not?”

I decided to partner up before submitting again and teamed up with my friend David Pohl, a hail-fellow-well-met solver and mayor of my hometown.  As a crossword team we seemed to hit it off and scored quickly with three Sunday Times puzzles:  “Expansion Teams” (3/18/1979), “Electricks” (8/26/1979), and “Letter-Perfect” (10/21/1979).  We would brainstorm theme ideas over a pot of Formosa Oolong and then share construction and clue duties.  “Expansion Teams” was my idea, and “Electricks” was his idea—an original theme ahead of its time.  Our original title was “High Tension Area,” but Eugene changed it, because he thought the title would make solvers nervous.  As it turned out, he allowed “High tension area” as a clue for WASHINGTON, D.C. (that clue is still relevant).

Back in 1979, there was no Internet.  No Google.  No Wikipedia.  No computer crossword software.  No personal computers.  The standard tools of our trade were:  graph paper, pencils, dictionaries, encyclopedias, almanacs, and the local library.  It was a challenge just to design a symmetrical grid and then number it correctly.  (Down entries were often overlooked.)  Choice of words for the fill was extremely limited.  We didn’t have the wide assortment of names like we do now.  The few names we could use that ended in vowels were:  Joni (Mitchell), Teri (Garr), Ava (Gardner), Shari (Lewis), Toni (Tennille), and Oona (O’Neill).  And lest we forget Oola Oop . . . misspelled, of course.  (In 1979, who knew her name was actually spelled Ooola?)

Back in 1979, The New York Times was dead set against brand names appearing in crosswords.  Any submissions containing brand names were quickly rejected.  And the Times solving base was  different than it is today.  Solvers were generally older and seemed to like clues with ties to art, literature, geography, and classical music.  They weren’t big on Top Forty music clues.  Chic was never clued as “Le Freak” group, and YMCA was never clued as a Village People hit.  Eugene was a regular at the Metropolitan Opera, and solvers could expect plenty of Met-life clues.

Yes, you will find a substantial number of geographical entries, opera roles, Italian/Spanish words, and esoterica in these pre-Shortzian grids, but it should be taken into account what constraints crossword constructors were shackled with during those predigital decades:  No Internet.  No Google.  No Wikipedia.  No computer crossword software.  No brand names.

Of course, there’s always an exception to the rule, and that exception was Jordan Lasher.  His low word-count grids were amazingly free of esoterica and crosswordese.  Constructors and editors marveled at his constructions.  Sadly, in 1995 Jordan Lasher died of a brain tumor at the age of 48.  His passing was a great loss to the crossword world.

My own crossword world suffered a loss in 1979.  After our third New York Times acceptance, Dave Pohl was involved in a boating accident on Oneida Lake.  He survived the accident, but his two friends did not.  Overcome with grief from that accident, he took his life a few months later.  I wrote Eugene to tell him I was through with constructing crosswords.  He called me on the phone after receiving my letter and encouraged me to continue on.

A sincere thank you to Eugene T. Maleska and David J. Pohl for enabling my crossword career.

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In 1984 the crossword world suffered another loss when Margaret Farrar died.  I had not known her personally, but everyone I talked to who did had nothing but nice things to say about her.  Margaret had been Eugene’s coeditor of the Simon & Schuster Crossword Series.  After she died, Eugene asked me to be his coeditor at Simon & Schuster.  I accepted his offer and became a crossword editor, starting with Simon & Schuster Crossword Puzzle Book, Series 137.  That series ended at 259, succeeded by the current Mega Series.

Each book contained 50 crossword puzzles with sizes that ranged from 17x17 to 23x23.  Eugene would sort them by size and place them facedown on his desk, hiding the authors’ names.  He would then divide them into two equal piles, keeping one pile for himself and mailing me the other.

The editing process back in 1984 was not an easy one and required the following:

1.  Folding the grid diagram in half and holding it up to a light to see if the black squares were placed symmetrically in each half.
2. Counting all the Across and Down words to determine the word count.
3. Checking the grid for duplicate words.
4.  Checking the grid for misspellings.
5. Checking the clues to see if they were properly numbered.
6. Checking the clues to see if any clue had been omitted.
7. Crossing out original clues and writing edited clues over them.

One can see how time-consuming the editing process was.  Any crossword that required substantial editing was a nightmare for the typesetters to read, and often many errors came about in the composing room.  No computer-generated grids nor Internet back in the “good” old days!

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For many years Anne Fox constructed the Sunday Christmas puzzles for The New York Times.  Such classics as her “Seasonal Songs” (12/27/1981) and “Yuletide Excerpts” (12/25/1983) featured an amazing interlocking of seven 23-letter theme entries (all hand-constructed!).  After she died in 1983, Eugene asked me to provide the Times with Christmas crosswords.  My first yuletide effort was “Gifts of the Magi” (12/23/1984).  Like the O. Henry tale, inappropriate gifts were exchanged in theme answers.  Xavier Roberts received a Cabbage Patch doll as a gift from Too Tall Jones, and in return, Too Tall Jones received a pair of elevator shoes from Xavier Roberts.

Looking at my “Let It Snow . . . ” Christmas puzzle (12/20/1987) reminds me of a clue change that was made for (SNOW)CRAB AT 115-Down.  The clue for that entry had been changed to “Specially equipped railroad car.”  My original clue related to the crustacean.  I can’t recall the clue, but it may have been something like:  “Relative of a red king.”  I politely asked Eugene why the clue was changed to a railroad car that everyone I talked to had never heard of before.  He told me that Harriet Wilson had looked up snow crab in Merriam-Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (that and the second were considered crossword bibles), and the only definition listed was “specially equipped railroad car.”  I had referenced that entry as (commonly sold in stores), but Harriet felt the railroad clue would be fairer, since not every solver had access to a grocery store.  (Checking modern dictionaries and Wikipedia, I notice that the crustacean is listed and the railroad car is nowhere to be found.)

When Will Shortz began editing the Times puzzles, he asked me to construct a jumbo 25x25 Christmas crossword.  “Ho, Ho, Ho” appeared on 12/19/1993 and featured a SANTA rebus.  I thanked Will for allowing me that honor and then politely asked to be relieved of future Christmas crossword assignments.  I had run out of new ideas and felt it was time for a change.  Liz Gorski’s “Good One!” (12/22/2013) is a good example of that change.

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One of my favorite crosswords I constructed was for Golf Digest, a three-page centerfold in honor of the 1990 U.S. Open.  U.S. OPEN was spelled out in red squares that ran through the center of the grid.  Fred “Boom Boom” Couples appeared on the cover of that issue.  I remember carefully inking in the black squares with a Magic Marker and then typing in the clue numbers in the diagram, because the puzzle had to be camera-ready.

Another one of my favorites was for an Albany, N.Y., punk band called Blotto.  I designed a crossword for their 1981 album cover titled Across and Down.  The diagram was featured on the cover, and the clues were found on the back.  They gave me a list of words they wanted me to include in the grid.  One was only two letters—hence, the two-letter-word violation, which raised a few eyebrows from my colleagues at the time.  Answers to the crossword could be found in song lyrics on that album.  Each member had a Blotto name:  Bowtie Blotto, Broadway Blotto, Cheese Blotto, Lee Harvey Blotto, and Sergeant Blotto.  (For this album, I was credited as Samson Blotto.)  After  their album came out, I had a chance to meet them in their dressing room during a concert they were giving in the Jabberwocky Room at Syracuse University.  I remember knocking on the door, and a voice said, "Who is it?"

"Samson Blotto!" I said.

"Samson Blotto?  Come on in!"

Years later, Eugene asked me for suggestions on a title for a book he was working on.  I reminded him of the Blotto album title Across and Down.  He liked it.



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INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES GERSCH

Charles Gersch. Photo by Don Christensen.

How did you become interested in crossword construction?

I used to watch my father and mother solving crosswords in the papers when I was younger.  That certainly was a major factor in my puzzle interests.  Crossword construction for me goes back to junior high.

You submitted your first puzzles to Margaret Farrar.  Did the first puzzle you sent get accepted?  If not, how many puzzles did you send before your first puzzle was accepted?

For the Herald Tribune (where my first puzzle appeared), I think yes.  For the Times, the third was accepted.

How old were you when your first puzzle was published?

In the Tribune, exactly 13 1/2.  In the Times, almost 21.

What did you think of Margaret Farrar as an editor, and how would you define her style?

I wish I still had her letters and style sheet!  She saw I had talent and encouraged me to keep trying.  Her letters were like revelations to me in my early days, describing to me as a young constructor what worked, what didn't, what she liked, what she didn't like. . . .  She often aimed for topical, current themed puzzles.  She was very innovative and groundbreaking in her style, setting down many of the crossword rules that have lasted for years.

What did you think of Will Weng as an editor, and how would you define his style?

We hardly corresponded, as I didn't submit much during those years.

How did crosswords that Will Weng edited differ from those that Margaret Farrar edited?

As I recall, he didn't change much; he mostly kept Mrs. Farrar's general style.

What did you think of Eugene T. Maleska as an editor, and how would you define his style?

Based on his correspondence, he seemed like he knew everything about crosswords.  He was very straightforward in his style, very frank in his letters and correspondence.  By that time, I had more time for making puzzles and had quite a few published with him.

How did Maleska-edited crosswords differ from those edited by Will Weng and Margaret Farrar?

He was a former school principal, so he aimed for crosswords that were educational.

How did you go about constructing crosswords by hand?

I would watch my parents solving, seeing what words fit into the puzzles and how; then I would try to weave together words on my own, and [smiling] miraculously they came together in a grid!  By watching my parents, I also got a sense of the clues and then would think up my own, often fresh, definitions.

I've heard (from some puzzle historians) that I was the first, or among the first, constructors to do a triple stack of 15-letter entries (though not necessarily in the Times).  With these and other fills, I look at various letter patterns and see what other letters fit around those entries already in the grid, trying to maintain some fresh and creative entries, and then "magically" it all comes together. . . !

Do you still construct crosswords by hand, or have you switched to computer software?

Still by hand (amazingly!).

How has your construction style changed over the 60 years you’ve been constructing crosswords?

[Jokingly]  I didn't know I had a style!  I try to keep the puzzles fresh and lively, while meeting the demands and desires of the editors.

Of all the puzzles you’ve constructed, do you have a favorite?

I really like the Casablanca puzzle that ran in the Maleska era, around late '92, about the time that the movie was rereleased celebrating its 50th anniversary.  I really got a lot of theme entries into that puzzle; I felt really good about that.  Dr. Maleska also really liked it, so I was also quite proud of that.

I noticed that you published two Sunday New York Times puzzles with the exact same title, “Words on Parade,” under two separate editors (Farrar and Maleska).  The first appeared on March 8, 1959; the second appeared on March 17, 1991.  How would you compare the two puzzles?

It was a thrill to see these again!  As I recall, Mrs. Farrar came up with the original title; years later, I was toying with the idea again for a similar puzzle, and it was a nice challenge coming up with more clever and mainly different entries for the second puzzle.  Dr. Maleska told me later he really liked how it all worked out.

Which aspect of the eventual database of pre-Shortzian puzzles are you most excited about?

It's quite an impressive database and project.  Good luck with it!

Did you teach your son [Jonathan Gersch] how to construct crosswords, or did he teach himself?

Maybe it's in the genes, though having structured mathematical minds (as we both do) probably helps.  [Jonathan Gersch notes:  Similar to my father, I would watch him solving when I was younger and have been very much into solving puzzles of many sorts throughout my life; at some point, having watched my dad construct numerous puzzles also, I soon figured I would try to do so as well, and likewise have honed my ability over the years, thanks in good measure to my father's expertise.]


Charles and Jonathan Gersch at 2008 ACPT.
Photo by Don Christensen.

What are some of your other interests outside of crossword puzzles?

Chess, history, politics, reading.


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INTERVIEW WITH NANCY SCHUSTER


What got you interested in crossword construction, and how did you become an editor?

I attempted to solve my dad’s Times crosswords from about age 9 or 10.  I went on to solving puzzle magazines with all kinds of puzzles.  Much later I made my own puzzles for the grammar school newsletter editor who asked for them.  They were pretty awful, but constructing them intrigued me completely over solving.  I got a bit more proficient, and finally I sold to newsstand magazines for $5 and $7 per puzzle!

When Weng became editor I wrote to apply as his assistant.  He said thanks, but there were no funds for that, and why didn’t I apply to Dell Magazines as a freelance editor.  This worked out beautifully, and I edited the “Expert” and “Challenger” puzzles for them from 1971 on.

How would you describe Margaret Farrar as an editor?  Did she change your grids, clues, or both?

Margaret changed nothing, because she never accepted a puzzle from me.  I must’ve been on her Do Not Call list.  So I was very glad when Will Weng took over, because he printed practically everything I sent him.

Margaret Farrar and Nancy Schuster

How would you describe Will Weng as an editor?

I loved Weng and, unlike Ai (Arthur Schulman), I found his more modern and witty editing much more fun than Margaret’s.  So much so that that’s the reason I first wrote to him about a job.

I’ll be featuring your Military Titles 15x in an upcoming blog post.  What are your thoughts about it now?  Are there any entries or clues you would change?

After a quick look, it appears to be very much in the style of that day, with pretty straightforward cluing, e.g.

It might have been unusual in that the theme was in the clues and not in the answers, and that might have been a new approach, but I’d have to see other puzzles of that time to be sure.

How would you describe Eugene T. Maleska as an editor?

I thought he was a big come-down from Weng.  But I was already very familiar with his talents, since I had been editing his puzzles for Dell for more than five years.  His clues always needed lightening up, if possible, and an avoidance of the pedantic tone.

How would you describe yourself as an editor, and do you still edit crosswords?

I edit whenever I’m given the chance nowadays!  I am somewhat careless and need a good proofer.  I’m in favor of everyday language over pompous or complicated cluing.

What made or makes a puzzle stand out to you?

Primarily, I’m constantly amazed at the creativity of constructors nowadays.  We always think there are no more original themes after all these years, then eureka! something new and clever shows up.  It happens so often now that I’m perpetually thrilled and delighted.

What do you think of crossword construction software?  Do you think it leads to better or worse puzzles overall?

I never used it, having been stuck with graph paper and reading the dictionary backwards when necessary.  The software has to be used in the right hands.  I’m sure this makes the fill much better than it used to be, so long as you keep building up your word lists.  When people solve your pre-Shortzian puzzles, they should keep in mind that the entire grid had to come out of your brain and nowhere else.

Which aspect of the eventual database of pre-Shortzian puzzles are you most excited about?

It’s wonderful for solvers and constructors to learn what life was like and what was important to people back in the olden days. ;)  If you’re solving an oldie, try to pretend you’re living back then.  It was a kinder, gentler, more courteous world, but I am probably prejudiced!  It’s very nice that we old guys are getting a little new recognition.

How did you become such a speedy crossword solver?

The same way you get to Carnegie Hall.

What are some of your other interests outside of crosswords?

Family, friends, health, and once upon a time, men. ;)


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INTERVIEW WITH MEL ROSEN


What got you interested in crossword puzzles?

My mother taught remedial reading in elementary school.  My father solved the crossword (and the Double-Crostic, which he really enjoyed) over Sunday breakfast.  He said his goal was to finish everything at the same time:  the puzzles, his coffee, and his toast-and-jam.  If he needed another piece of toast or two or another cup of coffee or two in the process . . . oh, well.  Thus, my curiosity and love of words came from both my parents.

My wife’s parents were also crossword solvers, and so Peggy and I bought many puzzle books, including Double-Crostic collections.  During one vacation the metaphoric lightbulb appeared, and I literally said to Peggy, “If we’re paying to buy these books, maybe the puzzle writers get paid for making the puzzles.”  Fully armed with no knowledge whatsoever of the craft, I figured out how to make a Double-Crostic puzzle by printing a quotation in block letters on a sheet of paper, cutting the paper into squares, and rearranging the tiles to form the “answer these clues” part of the puzzle.  Crossword puzzles were next, with hand-drawn grids on graph paper and a huge pile of eraser crumbs.  Strictly trial-and-error, including, for example, the remarkable discovery that “Starting to write a puzzle at 1-Across is a bad idea.”

You submitted your first puzzles to Margaret Farrar, yet your debut puzzle was published under Will Weng.  You mentioned on Cruciverb-l that Farrar rejected some of your puzzles.  What did Farrar-era rejection slips look like—what was her reasoning for turning down your submissions?

My first submitted puzzle was, in fact, a Double-Crostic sent to Thomas Middleton in 1968 or 1969.  Middleton’s Simon & Schuster collections permitted only five reader-submitted puzzles, so ours (the byline included Peggy’s name) didn’t appear until 1972.  As I recall, the reward was $10.  The quotation was from Portnoy’s Complaint, and I had to use a couple of ellipses to cut a few objectionable words.

The first crossword puzzle I submitted went to the only outlet I knew of, “Puzzle Editor, c/o The New York Times.”  It must have arrived not long after Will Weng succeeded Margaret Farrar.  He rejected it, noting that, for one thing, the grid had too many entries.  He also commented that my assortment of punny phrases was inconsistent.  But he encouraged me to try again.  I split that puzzle into two diagramless constructions keeping the puns Weng liked and added a few more.  He published both in the fall of 1970.  I sent him my first 15 x 15 in the fall of 1970, and he ran that in late December.  The reward was $15.

Margaret Farrar had left the Times before I started submitting puzzles.  I soon learned of her available markets, the Simon & Schuster collections, and another Sunday venue.  I submitted puzzles of all sizes to her, most of which she accepted.  As you probably know, she formulated what we refer to as the “Sunday breakfast table” rule regarding upbeat material with no controversy or innuendo.  In that regard, she (1) modified a corner in one of my puzzles to replace INCEST by AT BEST, and (2) sent back a wedding-theme Sunday puzzle because one of the entries was BLOOD TESTS, which, she rightly pointed out, had disease connotations.  I pulled an all-nighter and changed BLOOD TESTS to ELOPEMENTS, whereupon she restored the puzzle to her June schedule.  On another occasion she accepted a puzzle but advised me to pay attention in the future because my Sunday grid had too many three-letter words.  Her correspondence, whether rejection or acceptance, was always polite, gracious, informational, and, er, constructive.

What did you think of Will Weng as an editor, and how would you define his style?

I liked Will Weng a lot, and I’m not saying that just because he accepted my work.  His style was more modern than Margaret’s, of course, and he allowed looser entries while retaining Farrar’s insistence on proper decorum.  (Well, almost.  He never noticed the theme of my very first daily puzzle, missing the connection between RUMPUS ROOM, CIGAR BUTTS, and two more.)

My first Sunday puzzle was titled “Inflation.”  Peggy suggested the idea, inspired by the Victor Borge routine involving phonetic numeral shifts (for example, the word wonderful became two-derful).  The puzzle began as a large diagramless.  When I had it done, I realized there was room for two more thematic answers if I converted the whole thing to a Sunday puzzle.  At the time inflation was high in our economy; Will was afraid that would cool down, and he bumped my puzzle ahead of others in his schedule so it would “remain relevant.”

First and foremost, Weng wanted solving to be fun.  His correspondence always reflected that and was encouraging and gentlemanly.

What did you think of Eugene T. Maleska as an editor, and how would you define his style?

Dr. Maleska was, by comparison with Will Weng, more pedantic across the board.  I assume that came from the nature of his education and career as an education administrator.  His correspondence could be brusque and admonishing, particularly when he rejected a submittal, because he knew what he wanted to see.  From conversations with other constructors, I knew he wasn’t singling me out.

Maleska was directly responsible for my first editorial opportunity.  I had sent him a Sunday puzzle based on the Tolkien trilogy, which he rejected because “not enough solvers would recognize the material.”  Several months later, a start-up publisher wrote him, asking if he had any Tolkien-themed crosswords in his hopper that could be purchased for a “Tolkien Scrapbook” olio to contain critical essays, “Middle-Earth” recipes, etc.  He remembered my puzzle and passed my name along.  The puzzle appeared in that book, along with an apt acrostic.  A couple years later, the publisher decided to pursue crossword books, and the only name in their files was mine.

How did Maleska-edited crosswords differ from those edited by Will Weng?

Maleska’s education included a lot of classical studies, and he was an opera enthusiast; consequently, his frame of reference differed greatly from Weng’s, and that was reflected in the puzzle entries and clues he liked.  So, in a way, his puzzles reverted to an earlier time with a more traditional vocabulary and, I think, less humor.

What inspired you to write a book about puzzle construction?  How and when did you meet Stan Kurzban?

Stan and I were IBM employees in the Poughkeepsie, New York, area, and we were often paired or in opposition at the bridge table.  He had written a few diagramless puzzles for The New York Times, including one asymmetrical design in the shape of New York State with ten or so place names more-or-less in their proper geographic locations.

Our motivation was simple.  When people learned of our avocation, too often they would ask, “What do you do first, the answers or the clues?”  That led to “Let’s write a book on a topic we know something about, get our names in print, and maybe earn some royalties.”  Kurzban was the driving force behind The Compleat Cruciverbalist (although we each wrote about half the material).  He had written a text on computer security and thought we could use his “in” with the publisher, even though our material was far outside the publisher’s usual arena.

Did the publication of your book have any unanticipated/serendipitous consequences?

The consequences are all pleasant.  Kurzban and I had revised our 1981 book in 1995 with the title Random House Puzzlemaker’s Handbook Will Shortz wrote its foreword, saying we would tell beginners everything they needed to know to start making puzzles, and experts everything they needed to know to polish their work for the best-paying markets.

Kurzban and I are happy that we contributed to the general acceptance of the word cruciverbalist, which has made its way into the modern dictionaries, and even happier that our books served to mentor a number of today’s well-known puzzle writers.  By the way, the 1981 book was one of two cited in a Dear Abby column in response to a query about the mysterious word cruciverbalist, which had been coined several years earlier by constructor Father Edward J. O’Brien.

Do you still construct crosswords by hand, or have you switched to computer software?

In the early 1980s I wrote the first computer program to help crossword constructors!  I had seen a calendar prepared on a dot-matrix printer and saw the analogy between calendar cells with numbers and puzzle boxes.  I bought an IBM PC within three months of that product’s introduction, taught myself BASIC, and wrote a program that eliminated the eraser crumbs and pencil nubs all over my office.  The program made sure my grids were symmetrical, ensured my work was clean for submittal (I spoiled perhaps 30 percent of the grids I was preparing by hand, either by mis-numbering, blackening a wrong cell, or inadvertently twitching a pen line across the page), ensured every grid entry had a clue, and built a rudimentary clue database and a word-finder database.  The program did not fill a grid by itself.

I don’t remember now how other constructors learned of my program, but I sold maybe 100 copies in total.  William MacKaye, who edited the Sunday crossword for The Washington Post, bought the program and asked me to write a little module to convert my computer format to something that could directly feed his typesetting process.  He told me soon after that the very first puzzle he fed through his new procedure turned out to have an asymmetrical grid, which he had not noticed.  He began paying a modest bonus for puzzles sent on diskette in my format.

When Windows supplanted DOS I wanted to rewrite my program but lacked time.  Fortunately, Antony Lewis (then a graduate student in England) decided to teach himself computer programming by writing the program Crossword Compiler.  This was purely an intellectual exercise; he was not a puzzle constructor.  I became an immediate fan and user.

What do you feel are the advantages and disadvantages of using construction programs compared to constructing by hand?

The first, and most obvious, advantage of software assistance is taking care of all that mechanical stuff (symmetrical diagrams, nice printout, and so on) that has nothing to do with the creative work of writing a puzzle.

Crossword Compiler has two grid-filling modes.  The Basic version of the program automatically fills words into a grid once you have declared where the black squares are and supplied some thematic or other answers.  The Professional version of the program can “autofill” as well, but it can also allow the puzzle writer to select one entry at a time from available words that satisfy the current intersection constraints.  Using autofill to confirm that there is at least one way to complete a partially constructed grid seems okay to me, but relying solely on that process encourages laziness, a disadvantage because the constructor learns nothing.

Conversely, using autofill as “proof of concept” leads to many more good wide-open grids and other highly constrained configurations.  Before computer assistance Jordan Lasher was one of the very few constructors daring to create grids with low word counts.  They’re commonplace today and of high quality.

Computer assistance allows a puzzle writer to explore many more options for filling a grid than would likely be undertaken when composing by hand, and without eraser crumbs.  The result, given a satisfactorily large and modern database, should be more interesting for the solver than an array of words bogged down with those STRNLE letters.  I don’t love STRESSLESSNESS.

There’s a two-edged sword inherent in computer programs for crossword writers, and that is the clue database.  The advantage of the database is, perhaps counterintuitively, that a puzzle writer can find an answer that has never before appeared in any puzzle reflected in that database.  CRINGING doesn’t appear in my file of more than 1.5 million clues, for example.  The disadvantage of having such a database available is, again, laziness, because it’s too easy to forgo invention and merely grab clues from the file.  The Compleat Cruciverbalist, by the way, advised constructors to be inventive, to use different kinds of clues in each puzzle, and to avoid lamely repeating old clues—for instance, [Woody plant] for TREE.

How would you define your crossword construction style?  Has it changed over the many years you’ve been constructing puzzles?

My constructing style has always had the goal of making puzzles that are fun for me to pull together and, I hope, fun to solve, with an “Aha!” moment or two.  Over the years I have pretty much eliminated real obscurities and crosswordese entries from my grids.  (Question:  Are ENYA and ENDE modern crosswordese?)  Like everyone in this arena, my frame of reference is what I grew up with, so these days I can watch entire Jeopardy! music and film categories and not recognize a single answer or question.  Probably for that reason, my cluing style tends toward an encyclopedic approach rather than tie-ins to current culture.

Of all the puzzles you’ve constructed, do you have a favorite?

“Squarely Figured,” by A. J. Santora.  Oh, wait, you mean a puzzle *I* wrote!  One I liked appeared in The Wall Street Journal “I Asked How’s Business . . . ” [And the taxi driver said . . . ] –> REALLY PICKING UP.  Another was “Location! Location! Location!” in The Washington Post The long answers were clued identically:  [Location of this answer].  One long answer was BEYOND REPROACH; the answer in front of that on the same row was TSK TSK.  The center row had BETWEEN JOBS, with TASK and WORK in front and behind.  A puzzle I was particularly proud of was a tribute to Frances Hansen.  She had devised a recurring theme she called “interview with . . . ” featuring job-appropriate punning answers to normal interview questions.  I wrote “Interview With a Cruciverbalist,” shamelessly copying her approach and incorporating her name in the grid.  The puzzle was the Margaret Award winner in Simon & Schuster's Series 247.

One of my favorites of your puzzles, “Fuller Explanations,” was published on July 13, 1975, and I’m featuring it in my blog today.  This fun puzzle had the definitions of various pieces of pre-Shortzian crosswordese as entries in the puzzle, while the clues themselves were the entries that appeared on an almost daily basis back then.  Was there anything special you remember about the construction process behind this one?

That was devised as a joke, to poke fun at the ADITs and ESNEs that were common fodder in those days.

You mentioned that you also constructed many pre-Shortzian second Sunday puzzles.  Which specific types of variety puzzles did you construct, and how did variety puzzles back then compare to Shortz-era variety puzzles?

I started with diagramless puzzles, which are easy to prepare.  I composed a few “Puns & Anagrams” puzzles, and when Will Weng introduced a 17 x 13 similar puzzle he called “Puns & Twists,” I made those as well.  They permitted some longer phrase answers.  I composed a few cryptics.  There were a couple of puzzles I called “Should-be Words” with clues like “Main events” leading to the answer LIMINARIES and “Still afire” leading to TINGUISHED.  The pre-Shortzian second Sunday assortment also included Acrostic puzzles, but Thomas Middleton (and, later, Cox & Rathvon) had that niche pretty well sewn up.

Dr. Maleska discontinued some of the second Sunday varieties in favor of more cryptic puzzles.  Will Shortz incorporated some new varieties such as Split Decisions (which have no clues!) and Marching Bands, both of which arose in Games Magazine.

Which aspect of the eventual database of pre-Shortzian puzzles are you most excited about?

The opportunity to revisit a lot of gems, including, frankly, the chance to see again some puzzles by folks who are no longer with us.

What are some of your other interests outside of crossword puzzles?

Peggy and I met at our college freshman mixer 54 years ago.  At the end of the school year, she told me that if I wanted to keep seeing her the next year, I had to learn how to play bridge and tennis over the summer.  Which I did . . . no fool, I.  Peggy still plays bridge every week.  I haven’t sat at a bridge table regularly for a few years, but I read the column in our local paper every day and analyze the hand.  We both gave up tennis about three years ago as our bodies started to, you know.

I took classical piano lessons from the age of five until I graduated high school.  My father was a very good Dixieland pianist, so I was also exposed to jazz early on:  Brubeck, Peterson, Basie, Fitzgerald, Bennett, and so forth.  Serendipitously, Peggy’s father was an amateur clarinetist and a big fan of Benny Goodman, so her music tastes coincided wonderfully with mine.  I play occasional gigs, and I swing out every week when I sit in at a jazz jam in a local restaurant.

Finally, about eight years ago, Peggy persuaded me to take up ballroom dancing.  Our favorite style is Argentine tango, which I celebrated in a crossword puzzle using a common characterization for that dance:  A vertical expression of a horizontal desire.


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INTERVIEW WITH BERNICE GORDON

Image courtesy of The Pennsylvania
Gazette and Sarah Bloom.


What did you think of Margaret Farrar as an editor?

Margaret was a warm woman with a fine sense of humor.  I visited her in her apartment and she was hospitable, generous, and extremely patient with me.  She was most encouraging.  Evidently she saw possibilities.  I was a slow starter and did not know that puzzlers have definite rules to follow.  After a number of rejections, she published my first puzzle, which contained the two 15-letter words MAMIE EISENHOWER and OLD MAN AND THE SEA.  That is what I remember.

How about Will Weng?

Will Weng was a dear man.  I do not think he ever criticized work that I did and never rejected a puzzle.  I considered him a real friend.

And, finally, Eugene T. Maleska?

Gene was a brusque, gruff bear of a man, and not a patient person.  I do not know how to type and, to this day, still use two fingers.  I misspelled villain in one puzzle, and his letter to me was probably the worst call-down I have ever received.  I did not know him well but was very impressed that he answered every letter in longhand very, very promptly.

How would you define the styles of these three editors?

I do not know how to compare their editing.  I suppose I was lucky.  The three of them took all my work.  I was prolific and able to be creative at the same time.

What do you think of the changes in crossword puzzles over the years?

I think puzzles are getting harder and are using new words that I find difficult.  Perhaps I'm a fuddy-duddy.  I prefer PEGGY LEE to LADY GAGA, GRETA GARBO to JENNIFER LOPEZ.

What’s the most interesting crossword you’ve seen constructed by someone other than you?

I have no favorite constructor.  I think many are extremely clever.

How would you define your crossword construction style?

I do not really have a style, but I have a great sense of humor and try to put it in my puzzles.  For instance, in the case of the word BOOB, it was a cartoon character and not part of the body.

Margaret changed one of my opening words from KREMLIN to GREMLIN, because it was more amusing.

You mentioned in an interview with The Pennsylvania Gazette that one of the best puzzles that you constructed was a rebus of &, which was published on Sunday, May 30, 1965.  I’m featuring this puzzle in today’s blog—was there anything memorable about its construction process or publication?

Margaret said she had never seen anything like it in her puzzles, and she was not sure readers would accept a rebus.  She held it for about six months, and when she published it on a Sunday, the response was overwhelming.  She mailed me manila envelopes full of praise for originality, and just as many who said it was tricky and underhanded and a poor excuse for a puzzle.  But it really started a new trend in constructing.

You also mentioned in your Pennsylvania Gazette interview that you have 300-plus puzzles ready to send out since you outlived many of your puzzle editors.  Approximately how many puzzles do you construct per year?

I still do a puzzle a day.  I have a group of senior citizens here where I live that comes every Wednesday for a kind of therapy.  I make them very simple, as some of the senior citizens have dementia.  They thought the girl who lost her glass slipper was Alice in Wonderland.

Which markets do you send puzzles to?

I send work to The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Simon & Schuster, and Dell magazine.  I also do work for The Pennsylvania Gazette and for the Flower Show in Rittenhouse Square.

What are some of your other interests outside of crossword puzzles?

I really have no outside interests these days.  I am confined to my Hoveround and seldom go out.  My days of running, traveling, shopping are over.  No complaints.  I am content and always busy.


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INTERVIEW WITH ARTHUR SCHULMAN


You submitted your first puzzles to Margaret Farrar.  Did the first puzzle you sent get accepted?  If not, how many puzzles did you send before your first puzzle was accepted, and how old were you?

According to my records, which are incomplete, my first Times crossword was published on August 24, 1953, when I was 18 years old and halfway through the B.A. program at Brooklyn College, majoring in mathematics.  It was the first puzzle I submitted to the Times, but not the first of my puzzles to be published.  Jack Luzzatto published at least one of my crosswords in 1952, and my first publication anywhere may have been in 1951.

Where was your first publication anywhere in 1951, and where did Jack Luzzatto publish that crossword in 1952?

Alas, I have been unable to find a record of my pre-1952 publications.  Luzzatto edited Original Crosswords.  My 17x17 puzzle, labeled "Custom-Built Job," appeared in the Winter 1952 issue; I think he published at least one more of mine, but I seem to have no record of such.  Luzzatto's note on my puzzle:  "This example of the intelligent type of crossword is specially designed to be a little more taxing than the everyday fare you get in the average newspaper.  It calls for an experienced hand in interpreting the clues, and is aimed at solvers who are quick on the uptake."

I've turned up some postcards from Jack Luzzatto; the oldest, which follows, is dated August 12, 1954:
Could you please send me 8 crosswords?  Four 15s and four 17s.  Your work is good, and must be typed.  I need them soon, and two or four at a time will do, though all should be here within four weeks.  Many thanks for accommodating me.  Payment as usual.
These were for Luzzatto's Crossword Puzzles for Experts.  In September 1954 I received a check for the less than princely sum of $70 "in payment for seven crossword puzzles."

What did you think of Margaret Farrar, Will Weng, and Eugene T. Maleska as editors, and how would you define their styles?

I liked Margaret very much.  I think she published nearly all of the more than 100 dailies I sent to her, many of them on Saturdays.  My misspelling of EAST LYNNE was unsalvageable, and she couldn't find KIAMESHA in any of her atlases.  But it was easy to replace BAWD, a suggestive term she objected to, and my "bad-news" puzzle containing ALEXANDER DUBCEK and KARLOVY VARY was eventually published by Will Weng.  My file of more than 30 years of our correspondence is more than an inch thick; it includes the last letter she wrote to a constructor, dictated on June 9, 1984.  The dailies in the Times reflect her conservative tastes, but she was willing to publish—on Sundays and in collections—an occasional cryptic crossword and even a bar-puzzle of mine.  She was, in her own right, one of our finest crossword constructors.

As for Margaret's successors before Will Shortz, I have little to say.  I didn't care very much for Weng's sense of humor, and I submitted few puzzles to him.  I had an extensive correspondence with Maleska and even had lunch with him once in New York.  But I never thought much about editorial style, perhaps because it was rare for any of my puzzles to be rejected.  I never checked to see whether any of my grid entries had been altered or whether my clues, which I never spent much time in drafting, had been replaced by better ones.

How did you go about constructing crosswords by hand?

Especially as I matured as a constructor, and certainly for puzzles larger than dailies, I would almost always begin at 1-Across with a word whose structure appealed to me aesthetically.  I almost never deliberately set out to make a themed puzzle but was happy to discover that a puzzle with ZIMBABWE at 1-Across was doable.  Successful northwest corners of this kind are, unfortunately, hard to duplicate in the southeast, and so my files bulge with more partially filled grids than I care to reexamine.  (See also the chapter on me in Helene Hovanec's Creative Cruciverbalists.)

Do you still construct crosswords by hand, or have you switched to computer software?

I'm still a pencil-and-paper guy.

I’ve noticed that you like to use a lot of unusual/Scrabbly letters in your puzzles.  What else characterizes your construction style?

I've often tried to create pangrammatic puzzles.  I don't know that I have a "construction style."

How has your construction style changed over the 60 years you’ve been constructing crosswords?

My "style" may not have changed, but my interests in crossword construction have.  I now have more than 200 vowelless 15x15s in my files, the vast majority of which are unpublished.  They are in many ways easier to construct than conventional crosswords but at the same time make possible puzzles more than half of whose entries are thematically related.  Moreover, words and phrases underlying vowelless entries tend to be nonrepeaters—i.e., they seldom, if ever, are seen in conventional crosswords—thus making vowelless puzzles more interesting, at least for sophisticated solvers.

More recently I have explored the possibilities of A–M and N–Z puzzles—i.e., crosswords whose entries exclude half the letters of our alphabet.  Thus, CROSSWORDPUZZLE would appear as CDLE in A–M and as ROSSWORPUZZ in N–Z.  These puzzles are much harder to construct than a vowelless—it is hard to anticipate the difficulties in stacking up the entries—but, as with any constraint-driven practice, one can produce more interesting results than one might have thought possible.

Other construction challenges over the years:  (1) a number of bar-puzzles—all symmetric, like conventional block-puzzles—which offer the constructor new opportunities for interlock.  I regret that nobody has pursued the possibilities that bar-puzzles might afford.  And (2) back in the '60s I collaborated with Oliver Selfridge, one of the fathers of artificial intelligence, to produce some cryptic crosswords, which we published under the pseudonym TANTALUS.  I thought that these and some others that I produced on my own were pretty good, even if not up to the standard of Sondheim, Hex, and many others of today.

Of all the puzzles you’ve constructed, do you have a favorite?

No favorites.

One of my favorites of your puzzles was published on March 29, 1975 (1-Across was SOLO), which I’m featuring along with your interview.  This pangrammatic puzzle contained the awesome entries JAVA MAN, SQUEEGEES, METHANOL, et al.  Was there anything special you remember about the construction process behind this one?

I just found the SOLO puzzle in my scrapbook.  I don't recall anything about the construction process, but I was obviously pleased to be able to stack up JAVAMAN, EXOGAMIC, and FILIPINO in the northeast corner.  I probably started with SQUEEGEE at 1-Down.

What are some of your other interests outside of crossword puzzles?

Doubles squash, table tennis, opera, baseball, Nabokov, Perec, dictionaries, birds, Mozart, Barcelona, Joseph Mitchell, Waverley Root, Orwell, Salinger, Emily Dickinson, Saul Steinberg, etc.

It's cool that you play table tennis!  Have you ever played Will?

Will Shortz and I were once close to each other in table tennis prowess, but he's become a much better player and would surely win easily if we played today.

I found an article about you in UVAToday that mentions a book you're working on, "The Mind of the Puzzler."  That sounds fascinating—will it be published soon?

Alas, "The Mind of the Puzzler" exists only in my mind, although I set out to write the book more than 20 years ago.  People who know me have long since stopped asking me about it.  I should still finish it, and I have fond hopes of doing so, but time is running out.  All that exists as testimony to this project is a chapter, "The Art of the Puzzler" (the editor's title, not mine), a sort of precis of the work in progress, that came out in a collection called Cognitive Ecology 17 years ago.  [Ed:  To read this chapter, click here.]


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INTERVIEW WITH MEL TAUB


You submitted your first puzzles to Margaret Farrar.  Did the first puzzle you sent get accepted?  If not, how many puzzles did you send before your first puzzle was accepted?

I succeeded on the third submission.  First one rejected because of excess crosswordese, including the word OONT (Indian camel) crossing DJO (Japanese land measure).  I made use of The Dell Crossword Dictionary, a mistake.  Second rejected because of contrived abbreviations—e.g., DIPH, as short for diphthong.

How old were you when your first puzzle was published?

Age 26.

What did you think of Margaret Farrar as an editor, and how would you define her style?

Mrs. Farrar was a lovely, caring person.  You got a personal note with a critique rather than a rejection slip.  Her challenge was to think up fresh clues to commonly repeated entries like AREA and ARIA, etc.  Also, to hold crosswordese to a bare minimum.

What motivated you to start constructing Puns and Anagrams puzzles?

I hadn't a clue on how to solve P&As until a friend, who was solving one on the beach, explained things to me.  I got hooked as a fan.  Some months later I constructed one, and Mrs. Farrar accepted it, editing about 75–80 percent of the clues.

What did you think of Will Weng as an editor, and how would you define his style?  How did crosswords that Will Weng edited differ from those that Margaret Farrar edited?

Will Weng was a gentleman through and through.  He brought to the puzzle the outrageous theme, allowing for calculated misspellings of theme words—e.g., LIONEL BURYMORE, mortician to the stars, or BEAULING, etc.  Mrs. Farrar liked plays on words, but the spelling had to be correct.

What did you think of Eugene T. Maleska as an editor, and how would you define his style?

ETM was a scholar, and his editing reflected his erudition.  He was big on vocabulary, using such words as "absquatulate" in the clues.

How did Maleska-edited crosswords differ from those edited by Will Weng and Margaret Farrar?

ETM built on the work of Farrar and Weng.  He was, in general, more exacting in his criteria and less gentle in dealing with contributors than his predecessors had been.

I read somewhere that Maleska unsuccessfully tried to phase out Puns and Anagrams puzzles.  Has it been difficult to convince editors to continue to publish them?

P&As, under Farrar, appeared every four weeks.  Weng also had a four-week schedule, but somewhere along the line he introduced Puns and Twists.  The diagram was 17x13.  The main entries were to be punny, with as many of the smaller words as possible given to wordplay.  No anagrams, and straight clues for the words that didn't lend themselves to wordplay.  He would run mostly P&As but slip in a Puns and Twists every now and then.  Maleska was thinking of doing away with P&As in favor of British-style cryptics, but a barrage of protest induced him to change his mind.  He would alternate the P&As with what he hoped to be British cryptics with an American flair.

You ghost-edited three weeks of New York Times puzzles (one week when Maleska was taking an extended vacation, and two weeks when he was going in for major surgery).  Did any solvers realize or suspect that Maleska had not actually edited these puzzles?

Not that I know of.

The puzzle that Maleska had slated for August 29, 1993, had to be replaced since there was an uncorrectable spelling error (OTTOWA instead of OTTAWA) where two long theme entries intersected.  You were asked to edit the replacement puzzle, which was constructed by Tap Osborn.  Was any effort made to replace OTTOWA, or did you or someone else deem it uncorrectable?  What was the theme of the puzzle that was never published, and was the puzzle later revised and published?

OTTOWA was part of a lengthy theme entry, and the second O crossed with a similarly sized, correctly spelled theme entry.  It would have been impossible to fix without undoing almost the entire puzzle.  I don't know if the author ever redid the puzzle.  The puzzle had already been edited by ETM, who had not been well during most of the preceding months, and he simply missed the error.  It was noted at the last minute by Harriett Wilson, who handled the proofreading and all sorts of other chores at The Times.  ETM worked from his home in Cape Cod, and Harriett was his most capable right hand.

How did you become interim editor?

After I retired in 1992 from my real job, ETM asked if I could work part-time at The Times helping out Harriett.  She had been overworking and hadn't had a decent vacation in some time.  They had hired someone to help her, but that woman knew only crosswords and next to nothing about The Times's second Sunday puzzles—viz., diagramless, P&A, and crostic puzzles.  I worked for a year filling in for Harriett during vacation time.  I had just finished a tour of duty when it became apparent that ETM was near death.  There were only enough edited puzzles to cover 3–4 weeks, and I was asked to fill in.

After Maleska passed away, his wife sent The New York Times a carton of puzzles that he had accepted for you to choose from.  Approximately how large was Maleska's queue—did he hold onto accepted puzzles for a long time before publishing them?

I did an inventory but don't remember the count.  There were certainly 100–125 dailies, 75 or more large Sunday puzzles, a handful of diagramless, P&A, and cryptic puzzles, and a few crostics.  As to the crostics, Maleska never looked at them.  Harriett would just check them for accuracy and proofread the printed copy.  No editing was done except when there were too many long definitions for the allotted space.  They had faith in Thomas Middleton, and he rarely, if ever, let them down.  I have no idea how long ETM held the puzzles after acceptance.  I'm sure it varied.

You mentioned that The New York Times was confused about whether there should be an editor byline for a couple of weeks—the puzzles from this time period had no editorial bylines.  Why was The Times confused?

I can't speak to the thought process of the boss at The Times.  Did the interim editor rate a byline?  He thought no, from the top of his head.  I  managed to get him to change his mind.  The thought process meant that the first two weeks' worth of puzzles had no byline.

How would you define your editing style?  How did it differ from that of previous editors?

I built on what I had learned from Farrar, Weng, and Maleska.  I tried to inject a little more wordplay and humor and, always, strived for fresh definitions for the usual repeat words.

What was it like being editor of the New York Times crossword?

Hard work.  You labored in a fishbowl, and even the slightest error would be magnified.  Think of the gotcha gang.

What happened to new submissions during this transition period?  You mentioned that two or three puzzles you edited were not from Maleska’s carton—what's the story behind those puzzles?

Since no permanent editor had been hired, I discouraged new submissions for the time being.  It would have been embarrassing to accept a puzzle that was later returned by the new editor.  Or, conversely, to reject a puzzle that was later accepted.  One of the three exceptions was a puzzle of mine run the first Wednesday (September 8) after I started.  Later on, we were running out of tough Saturday puzzles, and I asked someone to do a couple.  I know I ran one.  The other, I think, was left for Will Shortz.

Did you respond to fan mail and "Gotcha!" reports that came in for the puzzles you edited?

I responded to all fan mail, including the gotchas.  I remember just one exception—the epistle was from an obvious psychotic, and I just buried it somewhere after consulting with Harriett.

How did you select puzzles from the carton?  Did you pick them randomly, or did you choose the ones that you liked the most?

I went through all the puzzles, sorted them out in order of difficulty, analyzed them, and made my selections.  Someone had done a puzzle for Ned Rorem's 70th birthday that came out on a Saturday.  Maleska had accepted it and set it aside.  It was not as difficult as the regular Saturday offerings, and there were a few comments about that.

Were there any puzzles still left over from Maleska's carton?  If so, did they get passed on to Will Shortz?

There were a goodly number of puzzles left over for Will Shortz to look at.  During the first month or two of his tenure I recognized a number of the published puzzles.

What other crossword markets did you publish in during the pre-Shortzian era, and how did they differ from The New York Times?

I started constructing crostics in college circa 1951 and was selling them to sundry puzzle magazines, notably Dell.  In 1954 I started with crosswords and sold a number of these to Dell.  In fact, that first submission to The Times that was rejected was accepted by Dell.  They didn't mind crosswordese, because it would spur the sale of their Crossword Dictionary, a big seller in those days.  I also sold an occasional crossword to the Herald Tribune.  Nowadays, I've been doing a lot of crostics for a website, doublecrostic.com, run by Sue Gleason.

How do you think Will Shortz's style differs from the pre-Shortzian editors' styles?

Will certainly goes in for more wordplay than his predecessors did.  And the Friday and Saturday dailies are much tougher than they were prior to his taking over.

There used to be several other Puns and Anagrams constructors (Edward Buckler, Henry Hook, et al.).  Yet now, to my knowledge, you're the only constructor of such puzzles.  Would you consider Puns and Anagrams construction a lost art?

I guess you can say it's becoming a lost art.  In the early 1960s most of the P&A makers withdrew from the field.  One of the regulars, J. F. Kelly, died.  I used to study his puzzles early on for the right way to handle clues.  This left the field, more or less, to me.  Margaret discouraged newcomers, because it took up too much of her editing time.  Will Weng left it mainly to me, though here and there he would publish someone else's puzzle.  Maleska wanted the art to survive me and encouraged a few newcomers who showed promise.  He did, in fact, ask me to edit some of them and to offer suggestions.  He would then  reedit  them to a degree.  Will Shortz decided to use only mine and runs one every 18 weeks.  So, will it become a lost art?  Quien sabe?

What makes a good Puns and Anagrams puzzle?  Do you try to balance puns and anagrams, or do you prefer constructing puzzles with more of a certain form of wordplay?

What makes a good P&A?  Obviously, good clues.  I start with a couple of punned words and build from there.  I strive to use puns where possible, but anagrams are still in the majority, along with other schtick.

Do you still construct puzzles by hand, or have you switched to computer software?

By hand only.  I am computer-challenged.

Has your construction style changed over the nearly 60 years you've been publishing crossword puzzles and Puns and Anagrams puzzles, and if so, how?

The style has evolved over the years.  Mrs. Farrar had her standards, and Will Weng allowed these to be expanded.  Maleska's was a blend of both of the above, and I think I influenced his outlook.  Over the years, I tried all sorts of new kinds of clues, especially with small words.

What are some of your other interests outside of crossword puzzles?

I live with my wife in Manhattan, near Lincoln Center.  We enjoy theater, movies, and concerts and belong to a drama group at a local community center.  Then there are the museums and the dining out and just going for walks when the weather is right. 

In today's blog post, I'm featuring your “Tom Swifties Redivivus” Sunday puzzle that was published on December 11, 1988.  It's truly a masterpiece!  What was your inspiration for this puzzle, and how long did it take you to come up with 16 long theme entries that fit into a 21x grid?

Maleska opined that I hadn't done a large "straight" Sunday puzzle in years and "commissioned" me to do a Tom Swifties.  He chose the theme, and I came up with the words, which flowed from my head fast and furiously.  After a few hours I had a slew of entries, sorted them out, and came up with a suitable diagram to house them.


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INTERVIEW WITH JIM PAGE



What got you interested in constructing crosswords?

I was a solver of puzzles and thought constructing one would be very cool, although I thought I had zero chance of acceptance.  Thanks to Will Weng, my first 15-by-15 was finally accepted.  Under his guidance, and after much revising by me.  His encouragement kept me from giving up.  He accepted my first Sunday puzzle.

When did you start constructing?

In the 60's.

What was Will Weng like as an editor?

Very helpful, quiet, and unassuming.  A sweet disposition.

How would you compare Will Weng's editing style to that of Eugene T. Maleska?

Pretty similar.  Both in their own way were encouraging to me.  Gene was more strict, however.  But Gene was tough on you to make you better.

What was Eugene T. Maleska like as an editor?

Strict but fair.  Interesting to note that Gene's acceptances and rejections were handwritten.

How would you compare the pre-Shortzian era of crosswords to the Shortz era?

Most of my themed puzzles for Will Weng and Gene Maleska contained interlocked thematic grid entries.  Interlocking themes in puzzle grids have pretty much gone by the wayside.  That was the way things were done way back then.  Now, no longer.  Theme ideas like my bicentennial puzzles for Weng in 1976 resulted from much research.  But most theme ideas come from the brain of the constructor.

Puzzle constructors have witnessed changes since Will Shortz took over.  For example:
  • Constructor bylines on daily puzzles.  (That was a biggie.)
  • 15x15 puzzle payment $200.  (In Weng's and Maleska's day, considerably less.  A labor of love for puzzle constructors back then, you might say.  Hard labor of love.)
  • 21x21 and 23x23 puzzle payment now at $1000.  (Considerably less way back when.) 

Other changes since Shortz took over:
  • The difficulty of Shortz's "new wave" puzzles is often determined by the cluing, which is very clever, fresh, and challenging.
  • Expansion of the role of the grid entries to increase thematic variety—for example, grid themes that contain circles whose letters when connected uncover an author's name, movie, or book title, say, or a hint to the puzzle's theme.  Other figures in the grid are allowed now, as well.  A martini glass, say, or a double helix arrived at by connecting certain grid letters.
  • Monday through Thursday puzzles are all themed.
  • Friday and Saturday puzzles are all themeless.
  • Rebus puzzles are now encouraged.
  • Brand names like "Pepsi," for example, in the puzzle grid (kept to a minimum) are now acceptable.

Which aspect of the eventual pre-Shortzian database are you most excited about?  Do you think it will come in handy from a constructor's perspective, and if so, how?

There were no databases, as we think of them today.  Very few if any personal computers in the 60's.  Puzzles were done by hand.  Grid words came from dictionaries (no Google, no Internet), atlases, songbooks, etc.  Over the years I've constructed my own database culled from my reading.  "Fresh" words, those words seldom seen in crossword grids at any point in time.  Fresh but knowable to the solver.  Fresh words really come in handy when constructing themeless crosswords.

Do you use computer software to help construct your crosswords?

Yes.

How did you construct crosswords by hand?

To construct a puzzle back in the 70's, one needed access to dictionaries, atlases, songbooks, thesauri, encyclopedias, etc.  Today a few keystrokes to the Internet and Google eliminate library visits and getting up off your butt to look up information.  When I got started back in the 70's, I assembled reams of graph paper, a fistful of hard-lead pencils, and a gum eraser.  A gum eraser the size of a football.

How would you compare constructing with computer software to constructing by hand?  What are the advantages and disadvantages?

Advantages:  keeping track of black squares and words in grid symmetry automatically.  Constructing by hand called for huge erasing horrors with each word change in the grid.  Many of my pre-computer puzzles have eraser holes perforating the graph paper.  Also, checking on duplicate words in the grid.  They can be overlooked when constructing by hand.

Out of all the many puzzles you’ve constructed, do you have a favorite?

The idea for "Clueless" (a Sunday New York Times puzzle for Shortz [published December 10, 1995]) came to me when I spotted in a blank New York Times grid the idea of using the clue numbers alone as clues.  The numbers for 21-Across, 50-Across, 77-Across, 112-Across, 13-Down, and 76-Down struck a chord.  The numbered longer grid entry blanks lent themselves to this idea.  The numbers could stand alone as clues.  And thus the title "Clueless."  Thus:

Clue 21-Across  becomes GAMBLER'S CARD GAME (twenty-one, blackjack at the casino)
Clue 50-Across  becomes STATE CAPITALS (50 state capitals)
Clue 77-Across  becomes TV SUNSET STRIP (77 Sunset Strip, you ask?  Don’t ask.)
Clue 112-Across  becomes FIFTY-SIX TIMES TWO (56 times 2 equals 112)
Clue 13-Down  becomes ROMAN XIII (Roman numeral for the number 13)
Clue 76-Down  becomes TROMBONES (76 trombones, you ask?  Song from the musical The Music Man.  The Music Man, you ask?  Don’t ask.)

Notice that in order to keep these numbers in the correct place in the grid, the black squares cannot be moved at all once the thematic entries are placed in the grid.

I'm featuring your "Playing with Matches" Sunday puzzle.  Was there anything interesting or memorable about this puzzle's construction process?

The idea came to me when I stumbled upon the phrase "clenched teeth."  The idea of pasting together two items as clues.  Thus "tuskincisor" for "clenched teeth," "saxantler" for "locked horns," etc.  Notice LOCKED HORNS is interlocked in the grid with STUCK RECORDS and JOINED FORCES.  An example of old-time interlocking.

What's your favorite puzzle of all time (constructed by someone else)?

Too many to mention.

Which crossword constructors/editors inspire you?  Who are some of your favorites?

Weng, Maleska, and Shortz in getting me started, making me better, and keeping me in the game of constructing.  Will Shortz has kept me around and not consigned me to the crossword boneyard.  And for that I'm very grateful.  Also, John Samson, editor of Simon & Schuster's crossword puzzle book series, has been very open to my constructions over the years.  Not to mention allowing me to copy edit many of those books.

Do you also solve crosswords?

Every day since the 50's

Rather than solve puzzles against the clock, I prefer a more couch-potato approach, you might say.  Sitting down over a steaming hot cup of coffee.  Hmm, that didn't come out right.  Sitting down, comma, steaming cup of coffee nearby, classical music in the background, I solve.  But there are those who prefer the challenge of speed in solving.  Will Shortz's annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament presents that challenge

What advice do you have for new crossword constructors?

Follow what crossword puzzle ideas editors are favoring nowadays and create your own ideas.  As I've said, themed puzzles require fresh words, words that haven't been used in grids before or used rarely.  Note new words or phrases that come into the language and make your own database.  Once your grid themes are entered, put in as many words from your "fresh word" database as you can.

What are some of your other interests outside of crosswords?

Golf and reading.


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INTERVIEW WITH MANNY NOSOWSKY



What got you interested in constructing crosswords?

I was looking for something of interest to do after I retired.  Crosswords filled the bill nicely.  My wife, Debby, had done the New York Times puzzles for many years, so I jumped in.

I hadn't realized that you began constructing only after you retired—what was your wife's reaction?  Were you a solver too before you retired?  Was she surprised when you began constructing, and did you try to stump her with your puzzles?

I was not a solver (but I became one pretty quick).  She never looked at solved answer sheets (thought it was cheating), so long after the fact, she made the same errors as at first.

Your first New York Times crossword, which featured the phrase “crossword puzzle” in four different languages, was published on August 27, 1992.  How did it feel to see it in the paper?  Was this the first puzzle you sent to Eugene T. Maleska?

It felt fine . . . but something was missing.  My name!  I had to let people know, so I sent notification letters to all three friends who did puzzles and subscribed to The New York Times.  I live in San Francisco.

Maleska was famous for his rejection letters.  Did you ever receive any memorable ones?

The letters were rather strange, as it was more like being invited into an ongoing argument than an acceptance letter for a crossword puzzle.  I was already enjoyably subscribed to a great puzzle publication edited by Rich Silvestri when I found myself solicited for a dispute I had little knowledge of.

How would you compare the pre-Shortzian era of crosswords to the Shortz era?

The Shortz-era puzzles were more open.  Several classes of words were then not acceptable; clues were livelier, but puzzles really haven't changed that much.  Symmetry and grids are much the same.

Which classes of words weren't acceptable in Maleska puzzles?  I know Maleska didn't like brand names and contemporary references, but was there anything else?

That was it . . . maybe a few other categories of things.
 
Some of your puzzles appear in Parnell Hall’s Puzzle Lady mysteries.   How did this come about?  Did he write to you and ask for puzzles, or did you write to him and offer to construct them?

To tell you the truth, I  forgot, but it was pleasant. :-) 

What advice do you have for new crossword constructors?

Have fun!


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INTERVIEW WITH ARTIE BENNETT


How did you get started constructing crosswords?

I was a crossword puzzle prodigy and enjoyed solving them from a very young age.  I recall tackling the crosswords in the back of TV Guide when I was, perhaps, eight or nine years old, and I was pretty good at them.  The puzzles were tailored to the current television season, and I could fudge my way through.  I would thumb through the TV Guide itself to track down the name of, say, some soap star referenced in 5 Across.  I soon graduated to the more challenging puzzles in our local New York newspapers.

Before my teen years, I decided to try my hand at creating them.  I designed a few newspaper-style crossword grids (15 by 15) and began filling them in.  One day, I was emboldened to submit one of my efforts to The New York Times, the gold standard for crossword puzzles, and to my great astonishment, they purchased it!  There was several months' lag time, but it was published while I was still thirteen years old.  My crossword career was launched!  I would later have my first larger Sunday puzzle published by the Times at age fifteen.

Artie Bennett's first Sunday crossword, November 15, 1970.

How did you construct crosswords before computer software?

It took a lot of elbow grease.  I created a sheet of crossword squares, and my mom Xeroxed perhaps a hundred copies for me to noodle upon.  I knew from experience that the standard crossword grid needed to be symmetric and that two-letter words were a no-no.  There was much penciling in and even more erasing.  But I loved meshing words together, though sometimes a particularly knotty portion of the puzzle would take a few anguished weeks to resolve.

My principal reference tool was a dog-eared paperback Dell Crossword Dictionary with a three- and four-letter word finder section in the back, which proved invaluable.  And my career was aided immensely when my sister and I found a complete, ten-volume set of the Oxford Universal English Dictionary on Historical Principles in the incinerator room of my grandmother's apartment building in Brooklyn.  Some yahoo had apparently discarded it.  My Old World grandmother didn't understand why I refused to share my bounty.  All she asked for was one measly volume:  A–Bro, Bro–Dec, Dec–Fit . . . ?

What was it like being a young constructor in the Margaret Farrar and Will Weng days?

It was terribly exciting having my first (daily) puzzle published.  But because only the Sunday puzzles bore a byline, I don't believe I shared the news with many of my peers, for they probably would've thought I was fibbing.  ("Yeah, Artie, and you just pinch-hit for Joe Pepitone and knocked in the winning run for the Yankees last night, too!")

How much did daily and Sunday crosswords pay back then?  What did you use the money for?

The first daily puzzle paid fifteen dollars, which bought a lot of baseball cards, comic books, and jawbreakers.  The fee went up to twenty dollars within a couple of years.  My first Sunday puzzle, at age fifteen, earned me fifty dollars, a princely sum for a boy my age.  It bought even more baseball cards, comic books, and jawbreakers.  My second and final Sunday puzzle, published when I was seventeen, brought seventy-five dollars.  The money went to the purchase of my first car, an Oldsmobile Cutlass.  How fast they grow up!

What was Will Weng like as an editor?

He was patient, kind, and wise.  And he sent me a lovely note.  It was in response to my request for a recommendation as I embarked upon a job search after graduating from college.  I recall sending along a dollar to Mr. Weng for his "troubles," which he graciously returned with the recommendation, assuming that I needed the buck more than he did.  As Mr. Weng noted, I'm probably "the youngest person ever" to have sold a crossword to The New York Times.  The pre-Shortzian database helped confirm my suspicion that I was, in fact, the youngest.  That is, until some new whippersnapper comes along and dethrones me.

Letter of recommendation from Will Weng.

Did Will Weng change much (grid, fill, and/or clues) in your puzzles?

I can recall that he caught an error of mine in a Sunday puzzle.  I misspelled "Minnellis" with one "n."  He personally reworked that corner of the puzzle, changing the answer to "metallic" and adjusting the neighboring words.  He could easily have deep-sixed my submission, stamping it "Rejected!"

I can also recall using a forbidden word, "orgasm," in a puzzle.  While its connotations eluded my youthful naiveté, they didn't escape Will.  He wrote me that we couldn't use that term and he revised the passage accordingly.

And he also enlivened many of my clues, adding a soupçon of zest.

Did you submit any crosswords to Eugene T. Maleska?  What did you think of him as an editor?

No, I never did submit any puzzles to him.  I had pretty much stopped creating puzzles for more widespread consumption by then.  At the University of Georgia, my alma mater, I did construct a regular crossword puzzle for the student newspaper, the Red and Black.  One day, I opened up the paper to find an angry letter to the editor headlined, "Artie Bennett Makes Up His Own Words!"  The letter was a reaction to some punny, offbeat entry, and it incited a flurry of letters, both pro and con.  I never imagined I would become a cause célèbre.

Do you still construct crosswords today?  Have you submitted any puzzles to Will Shortz?

I haven't constructed a puzzle in years now.  I'm the executive copy editor for Random House Children's Books, and the last one that I made was for my company newsletter.  It featured the names of some of my colleagues, as well as many of the books we've worked on and the characters therein.  It got nice reviews in-house.

If you've stopped constructing crosswords, when did you stop and why?

I haven't officially stopped and may make one again.  They're so much fun to do that I may just up and construct one tomorrow.  But much of my creative energy these days is channeled into composing fun children's books.


Artie Bennett reading one of his books to children.

Which aspect of the eventual pre-Shortzian database are you most excited about?

I never would have found my very first crossword puzzle if not for this remarkable database.  The database brought this trove of early puzzles to my fingertips, allowing me to winnow its riches until I experienced my "Eureka!" moment.  I'm so grateful that Will put us in touch, David.

You also write and edit children's books.  What's that like?

It's immensely satisfying.  I've been copyediting children's books for nearly twenty-five years now.  I love what I do—and I love where I do it.  I've worked on everyone from Dr. Seuss to the Berenstains to Christopher Paolini.  It was and will always be my dream job.

A few years ago, I got the itch to write.  Ideas were percolating inside me.  The result was my first "mature" work, The Butt Book, which was published by Bloomsbury in January 2010.  My "number two" picture book, Poopendous!, published by Blue Apple Books, came out in March of this year.  Both books are set in humorous verse, and both have been lavished with praise.  Several reviewers have compared me—favorably!—with my idol Dr. Seuss, which threatens to give me a swell head.  I've had scores of appearances, too, and that's been a kick.  It's a new and very welcome chapter in my life.

I've also striven in my books to enlarge young readers' vocabularies while teaching fascinating and fun natural history facts.  And I hope someday to see the word "poopendous" ensconced happily in a crossword puzzle.  Maybe you'll create it, David.


Artie Bennett's Poopendous!

Have you ever thought about doing a children's book involving crosswords?

What a splendid idea!  I had actually thought about one involving rebuses, but crosswords are, of course, dearer to my heart.

What do you think of crossword construction software?  Do you think it has affected the quality of crosswords or who becomes a constructor?

Those are very good questions, and I'm afraid that I don't have answers, let alone very good ones.  I've not been active in creating crosswords for some time now and I don't know enough about these developments.  Were I still active, though, I might warmly embrace the new technology, or I might fulminate against it, denouncing it as unvarnished barbarism.

Other than crosswords and children's books, what are some of your other interests?

I'm a natural history buff, and we just returned from an amazing trip to Costa Rica.  With more than fifty species of hummingbirds, and a singular array of brightly colored and fantastically named other birds, Costa Rica is a paradise for bird lovers.  Howler monkeys awakened us at 4:30 a.m., letting me know it was time to wake up and smell the heliconias.

Because my work tends to be sedentary, I crave more active leisure pursuits.  I enjoy canoeing, bike riding, playing squash, rollerblading, and most of all, swimming.  In fact, I come up with some of my best children's book verses while I'm swimming.  It's my liquid inspiration.  Everybody into the pool!


Artie Bennett at Playa Blanca, Costa Rica.

[For more information about Artie and his books, see his very cool website.]

2 comments:

  1. Great job, both of you, David and Artie! /Vic Fleming

    ReplyDelete