Jun 5, 2009

Interview with Gareth Bain

Most of our TMS (the old Daily and the current LAT) crossword constructors seem to be Americans based in America. Daniel A Finan is in Denmark though, doing his Ph. D there.

Gareth Bain is a South African. He is 22 years old, still a college student. He started constructing American style crosswords only a year ago, and his puzzles have been published by LAT, Universal and USA Today.

Today is our second Gareth Bain work since the switch. I enjoyed very much his last NIXON grid, where ON is nixed in every theme entry. I expect we will see more of his puzzles in the future.

Can you tell us more about this puzzle? How did the theme idea come to you and what kind of problems did you encounter while working on the grid?

Well it started with the helper phrase ETTU, and just looking at it in a different way. I like the idea of using "crossword-ese" to make puzzles. Having said that it's more correctly parsed as add TU and not ET, but adding TU is a lot trickier. There were a lot of nice entries so I went for 6 entries and interlocking them, and with a bit of fiddling and a lot of cursing whilst filling things in... this is what I got. The top-left and especially the bottom-right were the worst. Even after 2! spoiler (I mean helper, this is the LAT...) squares that bottom-right is still quite horrid. So maybe it would've been better to have gone with 4 sparkly theme entries and even sparklier long fill? I don't know...

What is a perfect puzzle to you? What kind of theme fascinates you? Or do you actually prefer themeless?

Something I haven't seen before, those really amazing out-of the ordinary themes... like Wednesday's NYT (I'm writing on Wednesday so it's fresh in my minds. I also really admire those solidly built Monday puzzles with neat, if not ground-breaking themes, but with a fill so polished you can see your face in it. And no, that last sentence, makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, but you get the drift... Themelesses are a taste I'm gradually acquiring, NY Times Saturdays are still liable not to get completed if the Americana level goes too high. (Miss the Sun themelesses, was a bit more in-tune with them.)

What is your background? What prompted you to work on your first puzzle?

I started solving the local (South African) "You" Magazine puzzle (by Phanie Alberts) with my grandfather at about 9 or 10. If you want a crash-course in crossword-ese that's the puzzle for you! I think I'll answer part of Q4 now... This is probably the most popular South African puzzle. It's what's known (I think) as a clue-in-squares type. There's no theme, plenty of unches (across squares with no down answer intersecting and vice versa), lots of 2-letter words, and more crossword-ese than you can shake a stick at. On the plus side, there are usually some pretty gorgeous long entries spanning the top and left-hand sides of the grid...

Still, it was enough to get me hooked on crosswords. I actually started trying to imitate that at around 13 - I can't remember an exact motive though behind it to be honest though - and have been annoying various family members with puzzles since then... I discovered American puzzles about 2 years ago, though the "premium" puzzles (LAT, NYT, Newsday etc.) about a year after that, when someone sent me a link to cruciverb.com (actually the second person to do so...) Each was a quantum leap for me in terms of quality; naturally I tried to imitate what I saw, but especially when it came to those "premium" puzzles, it's been a very steep learning curve. The best example is that until then I had no qualms about throwing in terrible words wherever and even letting them cross. Getting CC helped a lot, before then was using pencil and paper and excel (you only have to rub a hole through the page so many times before realizing the major drawbacks of making crosswords on graph paper...) I still like to do things mostly manually; filling in the grid with the press of button seems to take all the fun out of it, and I'm not sure if it doesn't take some of the individuality out of a crossword, but maybe that's just me. Having said that I'm leaning on the suggest button more and more, it's such a temptation, lol.

While I'm here, I hope you don't mind me saying thank you to 2 crossword angels who gave me a lot of feedback and advice (that I mostly ignored, because I'm an independent cuss), and also Rich Norris. It's said before, but it needs to be said again, he really goes the extra mile with novice constructors, both in terms of constructive feedback as to why a crossword is undesirable, and also by sometimes taking such a puzzle and telling you precisely what you need to change to make acceptable and/or a better puzzle, which has happened in 3 of 4 puzzles so far...

How are American crosswords different from those in South African?

I answered a lot of that already, but to add to it, straight puzzles aren't all that common. Mostly, what you see in newspapers are British cryptics and some local cryptic authors too... There's also no (to my knowledge, anyway) free-lance, edited crosswords, which is one reason I'm here...

Who are you favorite constructors and why?

In one year I've been exposed to a huge number of talented constructors, it's nigh impossible to single anyone out. I've got 3 but it could've easily been 30 and if you'd asked me this next week it might easily have been a different 3.

Gail Grabowski: As I said I really admire clean, "crossword-ese-free" early-week puzzles and she is the queen of those. Her themes are also simple, but often surprisingly imaginative.

Bob Klahn: I think it's last Friday's CrossSynergy puzzle that's still in my head, but his clues are just so evocative and so mellifluous (I love that word, even if I can't spell it) and so delightfully twisty and very much unique. How amazing is it to write clues in a way that's all your own (there are a few others that do it, but not so many...). The most amazing thing is how the clues are hard until you get them, and then they're easy, which to me is a mark of genius...

Joon Pahk: I haven't solved one of his puzzles and not been both surprised and impressed by it. The Sun puzzle where lead turns into gold is still etched in my memory. Which is incredible, considering the number of crosswords between it and the present...

Note from C.C.:

1) The helper squares in Gareth's answer #1 refer to the two black squares directly above and below ADJ (13D) and BEL (60D). See today's grid.

In his "What is your background" answers, Gareth mentioned CC and "unches". CC refers to Crossword Compiler, the crossword constructing software. "Unches" means "unchecked fills", like the edge letters N, S, W, E in this Joe Krozel compass puzzle.


Anonymous said...

As always, terrific interview. Very refreshing. Will Nediger is Canadian crossword constructor.

Lemonade714 said...

I cannot even solve what you all were talking about; interesting but intimidating. Thanks for the continuation of my education.

kazie said...

Interesting to get a foreign perspective from a different direction. And so young too! Impressive! Thanks, c.c.

Clear Ayes said...

Wow, Gareth. I'm amazed that someone so young has developed such mature crossword constructing skills. Please keep them coming.

Thanks to C.C. for bringing us an interview with this interesting and talented young man.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting the Gareth Bain interview. He is pretty amazing!!

The puzzle today kicked my butt! What a great constructor Gareth is. Go to your blog every day, enjoy it very much.

Kindest regards,
Santa Fe, New Mexico

Dennis said...

A bit late, but I wanted to echo everybody else's sentiments - this guy's good. A great interview, extremely interesting, and I can't wait to see more from him.

andrea carla michaels said...

just did Gareth's XOXO puzzle and thought it was a ton of fun.
Talking SMACK and Tight SQUEEZE were fabulous.
Not sure what day of the week it was but if it was a Monday, he has reached his polished goal!

Argyle said...

It was a Wednesday.