Apr 15, 2009

Interview with Dan Naddor

Dan Feyer mentioned in his interview that Dan Naddor is one of his favorite constructors. Barrel of A Pencil and a few other fellow solvers also told me that they are huge fans of Dan Naddor.

Dan is one of the regular contributors to LA Times Crossword. I thought it would be a good idea for us to get to know him better.

I asked Dan a few questions, and I found his answers to be very informative and fascinating.

What's your background? Who inspired you to construct your first crossword?



I grew up in Baltimore as a precocious kid who loved baseball and used to read Time Magazine cover to cover. That triggered a lifelong appreciation for the incredible depth and quirkiness of the English language. I became a dreaded know-it-all and developed a love of wordplay and puns at an early age (to the chagrin of my teachers and classmates). I remember vividly sitting in math class in high school with a problem on the board involving multiple colored dice, four of which were clear. The clear ones were 2, 3, 5 and 6, something like that. So I announced “So, on a clear die you can never see four”, punning on “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever”. Dead silence. No one got it. You get the picture – I was quite the geek. When I first heard of “A MAN, A PLAN, A CANAL, PANAMA” I was thrilled and astounded. In college, though, I soured a bit on academics but blossomed socially and became better-rounded as a person. Eventually I became an investment real estate dealmaker in Southern California. I’m ashamed to say the only reading I do these days is the newspaper.

In the mid-90’s I began solving crosswords at lunch as something to do. The Los Angeles Times puzzle, in fact, pre-Rich Norris. I’d finish them easily, underwhelmed with their caliber, and then think about how I could improve on them. I didn’t understand why so many had only three or four theme entries. I tried a few NYT puzzles but found my solving skills not nearly up to the challenge. But my interest in construction was piqued.


I've only solved 2 of your puzzles, but I found the state & city (I titled it as "Texas Lolita's Favorite Things) to be very creative. How would you describe your style? What kind of themes/fills are you gravitating to or trying to avoid? And what's your view on low word/low black square counts?


I guess I’d describe my puzzle style as original and theme-laden. My goal is to excite my solvers with clever themes and colorful non-crosswordese fill. And there’s no reason my solver shouldn’t get at least four or five “aha moments”, as Will Shortz describes them. If I’m working on a puzzle idea and can’t come up at least four themers, I punt. But if I can squish seven or eight quality themers in, that’s panacea for me as a constructor. It makes crafting a good fill tougher, to be sure. But it’s like laying out your stuff on the bed for a trip, seeing it’s more than your suitcase can possibly hold, and still managing to squeeze everything in without leaving any items behind. I like that challenge.

First of all, I want my grids to be attractive to the eye. Ideally, I strive for a block arrangement with lots of well-defined, open areas. And I shoot for at least 20 entries of 6 letters or more in my puzzles, the non-themers as colorful as possible. Themewise, I’ll tackle anything that lends itself to humor or wordplay – irony, puns, deleted/added/switched letters, hidden words. I steer clear of tributes and themeless puzzles because I find them lacking in “aha moments”. And I love coming up with punny clues that gently pull my solver’s leg, like “Altar ego” for BRIDE, “Grasshopper’s soda” for NEHI, and “Blow-out merchandise” for CANDLES.

Because of my love of heavy “themage”, most of my puzzles tend to be low word count and high black square count. If I can find ways to lower either without compromising my fill, I do it in a heartbeat. I spend a lot of time up front positioning the theme entries in the grid so that I can create not only an appealing look, but opportunities for enhancing fill by stacking themers wherever possible and finding longish words that can run vertically through the horizontal traffic jam. If I don’t do that, I end up needing more than the allowable 42 black squares. As it is, I spend hours and hours on fill.

Dan Feyer mentioned that you only contribute to LA Times. Is there a special reason for that? How long have been contributing to LA Times and what is it like working with Rich Norris?


I sent Rich Norris ten puzzles in the summer of 2006 before he finally accepted one (probably out of pity because it had 80 words, two over the limit). I’ve had 91 published since then and another 50 or so waiting in queue.

Rich is a remarkably talented, patient editor whose collaborative but disciplined style fits well with my creative, gung-ho approach. I have learned an enormous amount from him about theme tightness, consistency, “quality of fill trumps quantity of theme” and making sure the difficulty of the fill is commensurate with the day of the week for which the theme is suited (e.g. no obscure words for a Monday puzzle). He has rescued many of my more abstract themes with his terrific cluing ability. And when he rejects a submission (it happens over 50% of the time), he gives me a thoughtful explanation of his rationale. So rather than train/endure another editor while learning the craft, I’ve stuck with Rich exclusively. As time goes on I may branch out.


What kind of puzzles do you solve every day? Who are your favorite constructors and why?


To be honest I don’t do much solving at all. I solve the LAT every morning to keep abreast of what others are doing and what Rich is allowing. And I read Amy Reynaldo’s terrific blog daily. But that’s about it. I’d rather be creative with my time. In a way, I think my disdain for obscure words would be dulled if I were a serial solver and looked at them every day.

Patrick Berry is my favorite constructor – great themes and marvelous, uncluttered fill. It’s a real treat for me when he shows up in Amy’s blog.


Besides solving/constructing crosswords, what else do you do for fun? What would people find one thing that's most surprising about you?


I am blessed with a wonderful wife, Tracie, sons Mike and Alex and daughter Courtney. When I’m not with my family, and not constructing, I love playing competitive golf with my buddies, usually for money. I’m getting a bit older and don’t sink the pressure putts like I used to. Watching the Masters this year was awesome – I’m a big Tiger Woods fan (who inspired a cute puzzle I’m currently working on).

Actually, the thing most people find surprising about me is my prolific puzzle-making. For some reason most people I interact with, including the well-educated ones, aren’t into crosswords. I guess I must keep my intellectual side, born from childhood, under wraps pretty well.

Thanks for inviting me into your domain, CC. It was fun to be asked such insightful questions about my hobby/obsession!

Added later by C.C.:

1) Dan passed away on Dec 28, 2009. He was 53 years old. I felt comforted that his last birthday (Oct 16) was celebrated on our blog and he knew how much he was loved and admired in our community. For those who can't access
Dan's Facebook, here are a few of his favorite things:

Favorite music: Yo Yo Ma; Classical; Musical Theatre (West Side Story)

Favorite TV shows: Wild Wild West

Favorite movies: Wizard of Oz; Shawshank Redemption.

Favorite Quotations: Never, Never, Never Give up (Winston Churchill); Always Do the Right Thing (Dan Naddor).

2) Dan Naddor obit in LA Times.

3) His friends called him "Mr. Duck", and he nicknamed himself
"Dr. Squish" for "his propensity to crowd theme-related clues into his puzzles".

4) Dan Naddor Wordplay Tribute (March 25, 2010)

5) Here is a summary of all of Dan's LAT puzzles (April 17, 2011)

25 comments:

Dennis said...

Just a great interview on both parts. I really liked the analogy of laying all the clothes out on a bed, then trying to cram them all into a suitcase. Also, since I like puzzles with lots of six or more letter fills, I thought this was particularly interesting insight into Dan's thought process.

Thanks, Dan - I hope we see a lot more of your work, and as always, magnificent job, C.C.

C. C. said...

Dennis,
Prior to this interview, I had never paid attention to the amount of 6 or more letter words. Do you like puzzles with more than 5 theme answers? I find them to be very intimidating and distracting.

Dennis said...

C.C., yes, I like seeing 6 or more theme answers in a puzzle, as a change of pace. Actually, it really pushes one to uncover the theme, which in turn makes the puzzle easier.

Works for me, anyway.

Fred said...

It becomes very difficult to put more than four themes in a crossword puzzle. I have done it, but it is hard work. That Dan Naddor does it with such ease blows my mind.

Clear Ayes said...

I thought C.C.'s interview with Dan Naddor does a lot to explain the constructor's reasoning. Dan makes it clear what he is trying for and why he chooses the kinds of fills he does.

For those who don't care for our new LAT puzzles, perhaps they will now give them more thought and more of a chance to grow on them.

I think it is wonderful that the LAT contributors have been so open to being interviewed. Thanks, Dan Naddor. Wonderful job, C.C.

JD said...

This was a great interview,CC. I am learning more and more about the complications of puzzle making.It is interesting that each puzzle and puzzle-maker have their own personality due to their preferences.

Dan, we look forward to seeing many of your puzzles.

Lemonade714 said...

Fascinating, wonderful and thank you both.

kazie said...

A really informative interview. Makes the puzzles more enjoyable knowing a little of what the constructor has in mind. Thanks to you both!

Buckeye said...

Thank you c.c. and Dan. Getting to know the constructor's thought patterns may allow the dim world from whence I'm currently solving become a bit brighter.

I must be off

embien said...

Awesome interview, thanks c.c. and Dan.

For me, it's all about the theme (though I confess I don't always suss it before coming to the blogs). One of my solving "faults" is I sometimes don't spend enough time looking for the theme.

Thanks for the continuing series of constructor interviews, c.c.

Lemonade714 said...

C.C.

If you ever speak to him again, ask if he listened to radio show out of Chicago on WLS, hosted by a man named Art Roberts. Everynight, Art would tell a "bedtime" story, which was a pun just like his "So, on a clear die you can never see four." Listening to Art, inspired me to think up all kinds of crazy ones. My first paid work was writing stories for him, many years ago. He brought back som efond memories and some really terrible puns.

Razzberry said...

Ditto on everyone's comments.

Thanks Dan & CC

Argyle said...

In Dan Feyer's reply to me on April 9, 10:59 AM, he linked to a report the 32nd ACPT. I was surprised to see the ACPT puzzles have the theme shown and even explained somewhat. Is that usual?

Linda said...

The best puzzles are the puny ones!
Absolutely love them!

Dan said...

Thank you Dan and C.C. for the interview! I've been quite obsessed with Mr. Naddor lately... (can you blame me, he's in the LAT almost every week, and every puzzle has a fresh theme and a super-clean, low-word-count grid!) Dan, I promise to stop talking about you on all the crossword blogs now...

Argyle - feel free to email me if this doesn't answer your ACPT question: the tournament puzzles always have titles and sub-titles, which hint at the theme to various degrees.

Anonymous said...

It is with the saddest regrets that inform you all that Dan Naddor passed away yesterday, December 29th, 2009. Our love and support go out to his family & friends.

C. C. said...

I am just so sad. Dan, thank you so much for the entertainment & education in the past year. I'll be thinking of you every Friday.

Anonymous said...

I join with all the other bloggers in sending my condolences to dan's family. His puzzles were always a challenge always had a unique flair. He will be missed.

Dot

janie said...

yes -- a sad loss indeed, to his family and many, many fans.

re-reading this lively, informative interview reminded me of all that was so palpable and fresh in his constructions.

C. C. said...

Below is a limerick Carol wrote on Nov 16, 2009 on her post. Not sure if Dan read it.

"There is a constructor named Dan.
He knows that I am a fan
but his clues are so clever
that I will forever
need help from my ol' V-8 can."

john Lampkin said...

My condolences to Dan's family and friends. He was an inspiration to many constructors for sure with his consistently high artistic standards and super-sharp wit.

This interview reflects his puzzles--tight, loaded with insight, and above all, fun.

Thank you C.C. for this great interview.

Carl said...

Thank you, C.C. for the interview. Hope Dan felt your affection for him.

Anonymous said...

Terribly sad news about Dan. It just won't be the same without his Friday puzzles.

Anonymous said...

Farewell, Dan, and thanks for all the challenges and fun.

a Canadian fan.

Glenn said...

I happened on your site yesterday to find some answers to one I just couldn't get yesterday in the LA Times puzzle and learned about Dan Naddor's passing. I always look to see who the constructor of the puzzle is, and always look forward to solving Dan Naddor's work and am saddened to find out of his untimely death. My condolences to his family, those that knew him and to those that enjoyed is penned puzzle puns.