Apr 29, 2009

Interview with Doug Peterson

Today is our first Doug Peterson LAT puzzle since the switch. But several of you have solved his Newsday Saturday Stumper in the past several weeks. Those puzzles are hard, and Orange (Amy Reynaldo) the Crossword Fiend loves them.

Doug is very productive constructor. He is a regular contributor to Stan Newman's Newsday. And since he started constructing in 2003, Doug's puzzles have been published by Newsday, NY Times, New York Sun, LA Times, CrosSynery, etc.

Doug is also an excellent speed solver. He finished #38 in this year's ACPT (#18 in 2008). Enjoy the interview. I was surprised by his last answer.

We've solved 7 of your TMS puzzles. You seem to be fond of synonym themed puzzle, like the "Oops" (FALL, TRIP, TUMBLE and SLIP) we had on Oct 8, 2008. Is that your signature? If so, why? If not, how would you describe your style?

I don’t think I have a signature style in my themes. The themes in the puzzles edited by Wayne Williams tended to be straightforward, so I tailored my TMS puzzles to his style. In the L.A. Times, I’ve had puzzles published every day of the week. My themes have ranged from simple synonym or rhyming themes to more complex wordplay themes. Coming up with a theme is usually the hardest part of the process for me. It’s difficult to create an interesting theme that hasn’t been done before. Today’s puzzle features a basic “four of a kind” theme, which is typical for a Tuesday/Wednesday level of difficulty.

You and Barry Silk created a "Cruciverbalist" puzzle for New York Times in Feb. For those who did not have the opportunity to solve the puzzle, can you explain your creating process again? Is cluing more difficult than designing a grid?

Barry Silk and I met at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in 2008. We talked about this puzzle there and laid some of the groundwork for its creation. Barry came up with the idea for a puzzle that would detail the steps it takes to create a crossword, from the initial seed of an idea to the finished product. I helped to craft the actual theme answers that were used in puzzle, and then I constructed the grid. Barry filled the grid, and I suggested changes to a handful of entries. Then Barry wrote the clues, and I went through them all and made a few changes.

Designing and filling the grid is my favorite part of the construction process. It’s sometimes difficult, but I love the challenge. Writing clues is my least favorite part. It’s fun to come up with clues for theme entries and the longer, more interesting entries, but writing clues for common words like AREA, ERIE, ORE, etc., is a real drag. It’s not unusual for me to finish a grid in two or three hours and then not get around to writing all the clues for a week or more.

When and where does your crossword Muse often visit you? I am constantly amazed by your productivity and unbridled passion for crossword construction. Do you experience Writer's Block also? If so, how do you overcome those periods of lack of inspiration?

I work on crosswords each night before I go to sleep. It helps me relax. I often experience writer’s block when it comes to themes. I need the Theme Muse to visit more frequently! When I can’t think of a theme, I’ll fool around with a themeless grid or take a walk. A few good themes have come to me during walks. The nice thing about being a freelance crossword constructor is that I don’t have to worry about deadlines.

I understand you were born and grew up in Montana. Can you tell us more about your background? How did you get into crossword solving and construction. Still remember the first time when your first puzzle was published?

I’ve always loved word puzzles, and both my father and grandmother were avid crossword solvers. I started out solving word searches when I was very young and eventually graduated to crosswords. I first became interested in construction after I bought a copy of Random House Puzzlemaker’s Handbook by Mel Rosen and Stan Kurzban. That book taught me all the steps involved in creating a professional crossword puzzle.

Yes, of course I remember the publication of my first puzzle. What a thrill! It was a Newsday puzzle in 2003. I still remember going to the Newsday website and seeing my name above the grid. It was surreal.

And what would people find one thing that's most surprising about you?

I listen to loud heavy metal music when I’m constructing my puzzles. (Not loud enough to wake the neighbors.) Believe it or not, it helps me concentrate.

Thanks for the questions, C.C.

20 comments:

Lemonade714 said...

Go Heavy Metal Music, I find it relaxing as well. Great feature, getting to know the tormentors, thank you both.

Do you ever convert a themeless to a theme as you change your clues?

Dennis said...

Another great interview - no wonder Mike Wallace retired.

I find Doug's puzzles to be among the most interesting, and certainly some of the most challenging I've ever done (or tried to do). It's great hearing about the thought process that goes into them - I would think that after a while, writer's block would be a constant problem as you try to come up with new ideas/themes.

I concur w/Lemonade - heavy metal can be very relaxing and 'inspiring'.

C. C. said...

Lemonade,
Surprising! Surprising! A lawyer loves heavy metal music. A themed puzzle can be converted into a themeless, you would think. Not the other way around. Would be interested in hearing from Doug.

Dennis,
Doug's productivity is extraordinary, that's why I asked him the writer's block question. Now I understand why he is great at Saturday themeless Stumper. The Theme Muse does not visit him often. I should have asked Barry Silk the same question. He has a great puzzle at NYT today.

SandbridgeKaren said...

Terrific interview - always enjoying reading more about these constructors, why they do it and how they make it happen. Interesting Doug likes doing the grid and sometimes puts off the clues for days. I can see how it must be tough to find ways to reclue the same words that crop up frequently but he does a great job with it.
CC - thanks for continuing to provide us such informative and fascinating looks at the 'innards' on xword constructors.

Rex Parker said...

If you met Doug, the first phrase that popped into your head would not be "loud heavy metal," I assure you.

If I had to nominate a Most Underrated Constructor, I would nominate him. His Newsday Saturdays are wonderful.

rp

kazie said...

As always, interesting interview. Now I want to find that link to the constructors and have another look at this heavy metal fan!

Crockett1947 said...

Thank you for the interview. That was a surprising answer to the last question. Relaxing? Not for this guy!

Dick said...

Nice interview C.C. I agree with Crockett 1947 about the heavy metal music, but different strokes for different folks.

Doug seems like a very interesting person.

Fred said...

Doug:
Excellent interview. I've noticed that constructors who enjoy filling in the grid more than creating clues also generally design the greatest grids and you are no exception. Your grids are above average and today's puzzle is no exception. I thought the grid fill was VERY well done with lots of great words with little used letter combinations.

I also noticed you sell regularly to NEWSDAY. I'm very interested in breaking into that market and I have some business questions for you concerning it. Please e-mail me at: frejac3@hotmail.com and I will e-mail you back privately with the questions.

Doug P. said...

@C.C.: Thanks again for interviewing me. One correction: I'm not a lawyer. You must be thinking of Alan Olschwang. I work at a small accounting firm, which is even more boring. :)

@Lemonade714: No, it's not possible to change a themeless puzzle into a themed puzzle by changing the clues. Before you do anything else, you have to come up with the theme entries. Then you build the grid around them. But sometimes solvers will find "themes" in themeless puzzles by making connections between entries. Maybe every themeless puzzle has a hidden theme lurking below the surface.

@Fred: I'll send you an email later today.

Thanks for the kind words, everybody!

Anonymous said...

@ Doug P., Lemonade714 is a lawyer.

Doug P. said...

@Anonymous,

Thanks for the clarification. I didn't read C.C.'s post carefully enough. If I need an attorney, I'll go to Lemonade714, the Headbanging Lawyer! :)

Clear Ayes said...

"Maybe every themeless puzzle has a hidden theme lurking below the surface."Hmmm, I think Doug Peterson's comment will send most of us around the bend trying to figure out when a theme is lurking in one of those "themeless" puzzles. ;o)

Thanks to both of you for another interesting interview.

Linda said...

DP: At the risk of showing my age, heavy metal will be 'relaxing' when pigs fly! I can listen to it...but it doesn`t relax me...I like to walk to it...energizing.

I am constantly amazed when I find out "new", constructor rules...are they printed in a book somewhere or simply "understood?" If you`re a numbers cruncher, how is it you do so well with words? Such skills are often mutually exclusive.

Good interview...the erudite questions always help.

WM said...

Another great interview and it certainly helps to know more about the construction process...No heavy netal for me, my Music is Muse is classical.

I remember the Cruciverbalist puzzle and that I had great fun doing it and finding the puzzle-making clues.

Doug...I will definitely be looking forward to more of your puzzles...this one was right up my alley with the food prep theme.

Thanks to both Doug and C.C. for the insight.

Lemonade714 said...

C.C.,

I thought I mentioned that one of my incarnations is as a rock and roll lawyer; back when I was younger, traveling on a tour bus was my vacation from trial work. I still do work for bands, Blackfoot being the most active.

I like much metal, my youngest plays lead guitar in FDR & the HUGUENOTS. I am always interested what people classify as Metal, as I do not care much for thrash.

Lemonade714 said...

Mr. P.

BTW, what was your title for this puzzle; while we understand the concept, I am curious how you phrased it.

Thank you.

PromiseMeThis said...

WOW! Great interview. I went to high school in Great Falls with a kid named Doug Peterson. He was a year younger than me and I was good friends with his brother, John, who was a year older than me. Naturally, I couldn't help wonder if this was the same Doug Peterson. After much googling, I managed to discover that Doug Peterson of XW puzzle fame is from Billings. I also discovered that he had suggested to Dan Naddor that MONTANA BILLINGS might have been included in Mr. Naddor's crossword from March 24th. I swear I had not run across that information when I suggested that also. In fact, I found out about that on the LAT Confidential site which I was unaware of back then.
Doug, I also looked up the Random House Puzzlemaker's Handbook on Amazon. It is out of print and some people are trying to sell used copies for over $80. That sucks! They should be bound with piano wire and forced to listen to Zamfir records.
p.s. 'Ape wrestling' is fun.

Doug P. said...

@Linda- Most crossword constructors have a background in math or music. I enjoy words a lot more than numbers, so maybe that's how I got into puzzling.

@Lemonade714- My working title for this puzzle was "Now You're Cooking." I like almost any kind of metal with clean vocals. I'm not into the death growls.

@PromiseMeThis- Wow, nice detective work! Sadly, the "Random House Puzzlemaker's Handbook" has been out of print for quite some time. But if you're at all interested in construction, you should pick up "Crossword Puzzle Challenges for Dummies" by Patrick Berry. Don't let the title fool you. This is the best book on the market for aspiring constructors. And it also contains 70 original Patrick Berry puzzles: pure crossword gold!

PromiseMeThis said...

Thanks Doug. I ordered it when I saw your recommendation on the same site where you mentioned the other book. I think it was the LAT Confidential site, but I am not sure now.
At this point, I really don't know squat about puzzle construction. That didn't stop me from enjoying your puzzle, though. I did recently get a copy of the CROSSDOWN program. Between that and a few books, I should be able to get a basic handle on it.
Thanks for the reply.