Jan 2, 2009

Interview with Barry Silk

Since July 2003, Barry Silk's puzzles have appeared in NY Times, LA Times, NY Sun, USA Today and TMS. As you can see from Jim's database, Barry constructed 14 puzzles for NY Times alone in 2008, very impressive record.

We first solved Barry's TMS puzzle on May 27, 2008. Since then, he has offered us 25 quality puzzles. I've always been intrigued by Barry and his scrabbly style. And I was so happy that Barry agreed to answer some of my questions. I hope you find them enjoyable.

Where did you get the inspiration for today's MATCH puzzle and how did you decide the four theme answers (I am curious about your thinking process)?

It's been a while since I've constructed this puzzle, but I believe one day during a power failure and having to light candles with a match, I thought that MATCH might make a good theme. With a little bit of research I was able to come up with the themed entries in this puzzle. I believe I chose SWIZZLESTICK and CARDBOARDBOX because of their "scrabblyness" and they both have the same number of letters required for symmetry. I can't remember exactly why I chose POPCORNMAKER and BROWNIEPOINT other than I thought it they would make good themed answers.

How do you think your puzzles are different from others and why do you go to such a direction?

When possible, I try to incorporate 'interesting' words and phrases into my puzzles that, to my knowledge, haven't appeared in any puzzle before. Also, I usually try to make each puzzle into a pangram with "scrabbly" fill. For those who aren't familiar with the term pangram (as applied to crosswords), it is a puzzle that uses every letter of the alphabet. I once read in a book about crossword construction that using the rarer letters (J,Q,X,Z) in the fill would have more appeal to crossword editors. I guess that stuck with me. However there's nothing inherently better about a puzzle that's a pangram, I just strive to do it as a personal challenge. I wouldn't however make a pangram if it required using an obscure answer.

What motivated you to construct your first puzzle? Can you also tell us a bit more about your background?

Back in 2003, I attended my first American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, CT, where I met several crossword constructors. Until then, I'd never given any thought to constructing, I just enjoyed solving. However, meeting those constructors gave me some motivation to try my hand at creating a crossword. I didn't think it would be that difficult, but it sure was a lot harder than I thought. My first few puzzles were constructed manually... no computer tools involved. That was quite a challenging experience and as a result I developed quite an appreciation for the construction process and a deeper respect for constructors.

It turns out that my first puzzle was accepted by Timothy Parker, the Universal Crossword editor. The theme was "BIG DIPPER": BIG DIPPER was the clue provided for the three themed answers (WILT CHAMBERLAIN, ROLLER COASTER, and CONSTELLATION). It was published on 7/5/2003.

Soon after that, I decided that it would be a lot more efficient to use a computer in the construction process. Professionally, I'm a software engineer, so I took some time to write software, build databases and word lists to help with the construction process. I also use commercial software for the construction process. After several years of constructing now, I'm still refining my word lists!

What kind of puzzles do you solve every day? Any tips for our TMS solvers?

I solve the NY Times puzzle daily and occasionally the LA Times, NY Sun (now just "Sun puzzles"), and TMS. I especially look forward to solving the more challenging themeless puzzles.

Back when I first started constructing, I could not solve the NY Times themeless puzzles. but with lots of practice and determination, I was finally able to break through and start solving them. I think being a constructor also helps in solving the harder puzzles because you become familiar with the more frequently occurring answers and how they're clued. However, I'm definitely not a speed solver. It may take me anywhere from 15-60+ minutes to solve a typical NY Times themeless puzzle.

I don't think I can offer any tips for TMS solvers that haven't been mentioned before:

- Start filling in the grid with answers you know are correct. Then, work the puzzle around those filled in answers. Don't worry about solving in numerical order.
- Try to identify the theme and use it if possible
- Look for high-probably letter patterns (e.g, R's and V's are usually preceded by vowels)
- If you're stuck, walk away and come back later. Sometimes you'll notice something you couldn't think of before.
- Practice!

Any special planning for 2009? Seminar? Book? Your own website with free crossword and blog?

For those solvers in the Washington DC area, I have a presentation on crosswords coming up on January 17, 2009 at the Tysons-Pimmet Regional Branch of the Fairfax County Library. Attendance will be limited and registration required. Hope to see some of you there!

Thank you, Barry.

10 comments:

Ronald L Scott said...

FYI: QB stands for Queen's Bench..the name of the book refers to the specific court i which the trial takes place..Queen's Bench, Court # 7...also a movie starring Ben Gazzara.

JD said...

Barry,
All of us on C.C.'s blog really enjoy your puzzles. I've only been doing c/w's for 6 months, so thank you for the advice.It's always nice to hear from you.

Clear Ayes said...

Barry S. I think a good crossword puzzle should raise the bar just a little. What's the fun if I know every answer? I really enjoy the "lightbulb" moments I get when I'm working on one of your puzzles. They are always interesting and quite often challenging.

Thanks for the special treat this morning. Your interview with C.C. was terrific.

wolfmom said...

Barry S,
I'm with JD and Clear Eyes. Your puzzles always make me think and when I finally complete the puzzle, I feel just a bit smarter. I am also new to crosswords and also try the NYTimes on Sunday, which is still very tough for me.
This was a terrific treat to learn how you construct your puzzles and your thought processes.

Thank you C.C. What a great idea.

Razzberry said...

C. C. - Thank you for your efforts on this blog, especially when you do us such a treat as interviewing one of our favorite constructors.

Barry S. - Thank you for taking the time to visit with us from time to time and now giving us some insight as to what it is like on the other side of the XW.

embien said...

Let me join in the sycophantic responses (grin).

Barry Silk is without doubt one of my favorite constructors, especially with the TMS puzzles--I think his contributions raise the bar in the TMS puzzle, which can sometimes be rather lifeless (I'm thinking especially of the ones that are so obviously computer-generated, with many obscure names crossing other obscurities. Barry's puzzles don't seem to suffer from this symptom.)

Thanks, Barry!

Anonymous said...

Here's a related site to check out:

Notable Statistical Accomplishments of 2008 (New York Times)

Anonymous said...

As somone who has been lurking in the weeds for some time, faithfully reading and enjoying this blog, what a pleasure to read the interview with Barry Silk. Thank you C.C. and all you terrific blogers who never fail to entertain and enlighten me.
Jimmy in S.C.

DoesItinInk said...

Dear Barry Silk,

Thank you so much for this wonderful puzzle and for answering CC's questions. The theme was a delight, and the some of the clues were inspired!

Initially I had some difficulty with the puzzle: there were so many things that would not come to mind. I left the puzzle for a few hours, and when I returned to it, I could finally see the “--TCH” in the middle was MATCH. This helped immensely with CARDBOARD BOX which I stubbornly kept trying to fill in something to do with a “bread box”). Then letter by letter, it fell into place.

The puzzle definitely made me “work” for every letter, but in the end I had the immense satisfaction of completing it correctly.

Again, thank you.

Sallie said...

Barry and the rest of us bloggers,
I have been out of circulation since Christmas Day because my computer died. Had to get a new iMac.
I too enjoy all Barry's puzzles. However, I have one problem. I did not like to to see brownie point for an answer because brown nose is objectionable to someone like me. I truly believe other clues could have been given for brownie point. I know, I'm an old prude. But there you are.
And hey, I'm using my new computer the same day I brought it home. That's wonderful. And the Apple store managed to save my stuff from the old one.
So happy new year, everyone.