Apr 23, 2009

Interview with Rex Parker

Michael Sharp, known to most crossword solvers as Rex Parker - King of CrossWorld, blogs daily about NYT Crossword puzzle. And a month ago, Rex, Orange and PuzzleGirl started L.A. Crossword Confidential.

When I read Rex's analysis of grids, the themes & the fills, I often think of Johnny Miller's observations on various golf shots. They are both so insightful, straightforward and authoritative. I can't imagine an US Open without Johnny Miller, and I can't imagine a crossword world without Rex.

Hope you enjoy the interview. Also, please take his advice and write to your local editor if you are happy about the puzzle change. We need to support Rich Norris.

What is your background? Where did you grow up and how did you become and English professor?

I grew up primarily in Fresno, CA. I was an English major in college, went straight to grad school thereafter, and then straight into a faculty position. Exciting, I know.

How did you get interested in solving crosswords and later on blogging about NYT puzzles? And what is a typical day like for you in terms of solving and then blogging?

My grandmother solved crosswords, and I remember watching her working them when I was young. I didn't get into them until I was in college, when I would solve them with friends (one in particular, who was a much better solver than I). Then when I quit smoking in grad school, I had no idea what I was supposed to do while sitting there drinking my coffee in the cafe, so I started solving the puzzle in the NYT - the cafe provided a free copy that customers could borrow. I solved in pen. I got better quickly.

I stopped solving for a few years at the end of grad school / beginning of my career, mainly because I had no access to a free paper. Then I discovered the online subscription option, and I was hooked again. I started blogging as a lark (no models, no idea what I was doing), and I haven't stopped since.

I tend to solve the puzzle just after it comes out online (generally 10pm the night before pub. date). I then print it out, mark it up with annotations, and then blog it in the morning, some time between 6 and 8 (but always by 9 Eastern).

Who are your favorite constructors and why? Also, who give you the most trouble and how do you overcome this fear factor (if you have any)?

Patrick Berry and Brendan Emmett Quigley and Byron Walden are among my very favorites. Liz Gorski is also exceedingly talented. All these constructors are master craftsmen (or women) and also have incredibly inventive minds. Their puzzles almost never leave me unsatisfied, and more often than not they do something marvelously unexpected. To do anything new or original in crosswords is very, very hard, and these folks seem to do it on a regular basis with elaborate or clever themes, inventive fill, etc. B.E. Quigley is particularly impressive because he is so prolific. 3 new puzzles a week at his own site, plus the ones he sells to newspapers, books, etc. His puzzles tend to be very, very contemporary - having his own website allows him to make and publish puzzles very quickly, which allows him to be very responsive to whatever is happening in the news or pop culture.

What's your overall impression of LAT puzzles? How are they different from NYT puzzles in terms of cluing styles and difficulty level?

I am developing a fondness for the LAT puzzles. It's hard for the LAT to compete for the best puzzles bec. the NYT pays so much more, but constructors love Rich Norris and since many of them are not exactly in it for the money, he still gets really good puzzles from people who just like working with him. I would say that Rich's puzzles are less tricksy - you do not see elaborate gimmicks or even rebus puzzles in the LAT - and I think Rich can be a little less picky about a wobbly answer here or there if he likes the overall premise of a puzzle. I enjoy both puzzles a lot. NYT is still the gold standard, but I think you are about to see the LAT up its game a bit. I think the demise of TMS puzzle means the LAT is getting more exposure, and with multiple blogs now covering the LAT, I think the bar is going to go up a bit. But it's already pretty high.

Can you tell us more about "L.A. Crossword Confidential"? How did you come up with this idea and the title?

Amy Reynaldo and I had been talking for well over a year about starting a dedicated LAT blog. We both have our own blogs and neither of us wanted to commit to the work involved in being sole owner of yet another xword blog. But after we heard the LAT was going to get far more exposure with the new syndication arrangement, we felt we finally had to act, and luckily our friend / guest blogger of choice Angela Halsted wanted in as well. It's a communal effort, it's aimed at educating casual solvers and novices, so that they will eventually be able to solve harder and harder puzzles with greater enjoyment. The whole arrangement is working out wonderfully.

What advice can you give to our fellow ex-TMS Daily solvers who are having trouble adjusting to Rich Norris's style?

Patience. Please please give the puzzle time to grow on you. I can tell you that the LAT is, objectively, in every way, a better puzzle than the former TMS puzzle, and better than any other daily puzzle out there besides the NYT. You will get used to Rich's cluing style, you will continue to learn from C.C's blog (and maybe ours, if you have time), and you will be a happy solver once again. And I'd like to implore anyone who is actually *happy* with the puzzle switch to Write Your Newspaper Editor and tell him/her. Because right now, they're hearing only from the complainers.

I know you are a passionate Red Sox fan and you love "The Simpsons". What else am I missing? What would people find one thing that's most surprising about you?

I'm a very open book. I doubt there is anything surprising. Sometimes people are surprised to hear that I teach literature in a maximum security prison (in addition to my regular university job). I have a massive collection of vintage (1939-69) paperback books. My house is drowning in comics (I'm a fan, and I teach a course on Comics at the U.). That's about it.

Thanks for taking the time to interview me.

20 comments:

Dennis said...

C.C., a fascinating interview.

Strange how simple things can take your life in a different direction. Quitting smoking, in this case, led to Rex becoming the crossword guru. I agree with his statement about the LAT growing on you; I think, in time, we'll all be a lot happier than we were with the usually mundane TMS ones.

I also found it interesting that Rex is both an English professor and comic book collector. Rex, if you should read this, what's your most valuable comic?

C.C., Rex, thanks for an insightful and educational interview.

C. C. said...

Dennis,
Yes indeed, very intriguing combination: serious English professor & geeky comic book collector. Someone else on our blog also started doing crossword after giving up smoking. A lady I think.

Dick said...

CC, another great interview. I had a completely different opinion and vision of Rex.

Clear Ayes said...

As has become the norm, here is another sharp interview from C.C. I was pleased that Rex Parker is taking the time from what is obviously a busy schedule to help us newbie LAT-ers with a hint or two and some background information.

Thanks to both C.C. and Rex.

Crockett1947 said...

C.C. and Rex, thank you for the fine interview. Wish we had the paper LAT, but we're stuck with something else, so no letter of appreciation to the editor from me. Rex, I appreciate that you've been adding comments on this site, and have made your new blog a regular visit as well.

kazie said...

Great interview--lots of insights and good advice!

Thanks both to c.c. and Rex!

Heather said...

I enoy your reading your blog after completing the crossword. It's like visiting with an old friend.
Why don't you mention the WSJ crossword? It comes out once a week, and is satisfying as well, although not as tricksy as NYT.

JD said...

CC, this was the best interview yet! I think that the positive reinforcement from and Rex have really made a difference in our attitudes. The anons continue to be bitter.

Thanks for taking the time, Rex. I learned to love words from reading comic books also. As a teacher, I let my 6th graders read them too.I've only been doing "adult" c/w's since I retired in June because I've always loved words. These are a struggle, but fun most days.

Thanks to you both!

PromiseMeThis said...

Great interview. Thanks.

I would write to the Sun-Sentinel to let them know that I enjoy the LAT puzzle, but I am not sure. I have read nothing in the paper to suggest that they are considering changing it and I figure, "If they are not thinking about it, why make them start?"
Rex, if you are reading this, do you think it is a given that every paper is getting complaints?

embien said...

Great interview with Rex, C.C.

I have been solving the syndicated NY Times puzzle for a little over a year now (well, "solving" in the sense that I at least attempt the Friday/Saturday puzzles with mixed success).

Rex's blog is the king of crossword blogs (not that a bunch of the others aren't worth reading), and adds immeasurably to my personal enjoyment of the puzzle. Just as C.C. has gathered together a community of regular solvers and posters to her blog, Rex's community is truly amazing. I am continually impressed by the range of ages, experience, solving ability, and general knowledge of those who inhabit Rex's world.

WM said...

C.C....again, many thanks for a terrific interview and to Mr. Parker, thank you so much for your insight. It is great fun to watch for your Avatar and take in your comments. I think we are all improving with C.C.'s and your help.

My brothers and I used to have terrific comic collections, bought everything we could get our hands on and then our mom threw everything out or gave them to her 5th graders...*sigh*...

Thank you much for the time you are sharing with us.

Orange said...

Entertaining and informative interview—thanks, C.C. and Rex!

PromiseMeThis, we've been hearing about complaint letters sent to newspapers that made the switch from the TMS to LAT crossword, and it would behoove folks who like the switch to let their paper's editor know that they're happy with the new puzzle. There's probably no reason to think that the Sun-Sentinel readers who are used to the LAT puzzle have been grumbling about it.

Heather, I think I'm the only blogger who routinely talks about the Wall Street Journal puzzle. I cover it at Diaryof a Crossword Fiend on Fridays.

Rex Parker said...

@Orange, yes, thanks for clarifying. Letters need to be written only to editors of papers who have recently made the TMS-to-LAT switch.

@C.C., you readers are ridiculously warm and friendly. I'm grateful for all the kind words.

rp

PromiseMeThis said...

Thanks for the reply guys.
The Sun-Sentinel is one of the papers that recently made the switch. My concern is that, given that I have heard no mention of them considering switching again, would it be wise to alert them to the fact that there are other papers doing so? I just think that if they haven't considered it then that probably means that nobody has complained to them. Therefore, why not just let sleeping dogs lie?

Orange said...

Promise, the newspapers might not be publishing articles about the people who are complaining, but we crossword solvers are creatures of habit. (Aren't we? I don't want anyone getting in the way of the way I like to do crosswords or when I want to do them!) It's a safe bet that any paper that has changed crossword styles has been hearing from readers who want their old puzzle back. They do need to hear from the yea-sayers and not just the nay-sayers.

I agree with Rex that the L.A. Times crossword is among the nation's very best puzzles. Feel free to mention in those letters that not only do you like your new puzzle, but leading crossword bloggers speak highly of it, too!

PromiseMeThis said...

OK.

I will write them.

Thanks again :)

Linda said...

RP: Again, who/what is your avatar and who are the first 43 puzzle solvers...US? :)

David said...

Enjoyed the interview. Love Rex Parker's NYT Crossword blog.

David said...

Enjoyed the interview. Love Rex Parker's NYT Crossword blog.

Marie said...

Great interview, CC. Love Rex Parker's NYT xword blog. As a newbie, perhaps I should start on the LAT and the LA Confidential. That might be more pitched to new solvers rather than puzzle constructors. If the Sun Sentinel now has the LAT, I'll subscribe and tell them why I'm doing so.

Northnsouth