Sep 28, 2009

Interview with Patrick Berry

Patrick Berry is the Tiger Woods in crossword world, arguably the best in the business.

He hasn't contributed any puzzle to LA Times, but his byline appears regularly in NY Times (mostly Friday and Saturday themeless). Since Sept 1999, Patrick has constructed 122 puzzles for NYT alone. He has also created puzzles for NY Sun, Wall Street Journal and the Game Magazines.

Patrick is the crossword editor of "The Chronicle of High Education". He is also the author of "Crossword Puzzle Challenges for Dummies", absolutely the best book I've read on crossword. Doug Peterson called the 70 original puzzles contained in the book as "pure gold". Patrick also crafted "Puzzle Masterpieces: Elegant Challenges for Crossword Lovers", a sophisticated book for those advanced solvers. A classic!

Dan Naddor, Merl Reagle and a few other constructors I've interviewed all mentioned Patrick Berry as one of their favorite constructors. Dan Feyer called Patrick one of the best wordsmith in the world. I contacted Patrick and was so happy that he took time from his busy schedule and answered my questions.

What impact do you think "Crossword Puzzle Challenges for Dummies" has had on the crossword construction world? Several constructors have mentioned that they turn to the book regularly for references and inspiration. And what new part would you add for an update?

I'm not sure the book has had a huge impact (heaven knows the sales figures have been modest), but I've received several kind e-mails from constructors who found it helpful, and that's always gratifying. I know from experience how hard it is in this biz for beginners to figure out what they're doing wrong by editorial correspondence alone.

If I ever got a chance to update the book (which seems unlikely, given what a niche market it's in) I'd probably add a short section on the actual submission process: what to say (or not say) in the cover letter, how long to wait before sending a follow-up nudge, and so on. But I only had 70 pages of text to work with -- the rest of the book had to be devoted to puzzles, appendices, etc. -- so on the whole I'm pleased at how much info I *did* manage to pack in.

What's your background? How did you get into crossword construction?

I've always been interested in puzzles, though while growing up I never thought I'd be able to make a career out of them. I graduated college with a Comp Sci degree and found work in desktop publishing, but I also contributed some puzzles to magazines. The company I was working for went bust in 1997 and I decided to see if it was possible to survive making puzzles full-time. (It is, but just puzzle talent is a mere nothing compared to my talent at living on the cheap.)

What is the puzzle you've made you're most proud of? Why is it special? What is the dream puzzle you wish to get published some day?

Not sure I have an absolute favorite among my own puzzles, but some of the second-Sundays I've done for the NYT would rate pretty high. Also "Color Change," a crossword that appeared in the New York Sun...I honestly didn't think the concept would be doable when I started it, but I was very happy to be proven wrong.

What kind of themes and fills appeal to you and what are the ones you try to avoid?

Theme-wise, I suppose I like anything that's a) funny or b) elegant. (A bit general, admittedly, but heaven knows there are plenty of themes that aren't either one.) For fills I suppose my first priority is cleanliness, second priority liveliness. Cleanliness comes before liveliness because I have a tough time stomaching dodgy a solver, one or two dodgy entries can pretty much ruin the experience for me.

Now that you've turned away from ultralow word count, what are your top concerns in making a themeless then?

Basically I'm trying to find the ideal balance between word-count and liveliness. 72-word themelesses don't interest me much because I think themeless solvers like having lots of long entries. But the less-than-60-word puzzles I've constructed have all been vaguely unsatisfying to me, as so many of the entries were (by necessity) lackluster. Obviously there's a happy medium in there somewhere, and that's what I aim for nowadays.

What puzzles do you solve on daily basis and who are your favorite constructors?

Truthfully I'm not much of a solver -- I seem to get enough of puzzles by making them. (It took me a while to realize what an anomaly this is within the biz -- I haven't met too many other constructors who feel this way.) The only puzzle I solve regularly is Cox & Rathvon's "The Puzzler," which alas recently went belly-up, though I've got my fingers crossed that it'll find a new home somewhere.

There are a great many constructors whose work I admire, but if I had to pick one favorite it'd probably be Mike Shenk, who has the extraordinary ability to make the construction look easy even when you know darn well it couldn't have been easy.

What kind of books/magazines do you read for inspirations? And besides making and editing crosswords, what else do you do for fun?

Inspiration for puzzles is, for me at least, a "wherever you find it" sort of thing...there's no specific book I'm reading, but my brain seems generally hard-wired to look for puzzle possibilities in whatever I bump up against. (Too often I find myself unconsciously considering the cryptic-clue possibilities of a word or phrase that isn't at all "in the language" and therefore useless...once you start down this path, it's hard to stop.)

Besides working on puzzles, I enjoy playing on the guitar (purely for fun - I don't play well enough for anything more grandiose than that).


Dennis said...

C.C., what a great coup, getting Patrick Berry - shows the respect you have in the industry.

A great interview; I really enjoy reading about the thought process of constructors - to me, it's like a black art.

I was very surprised to read that most constructors still solve; I'm with Patrick, I think if I made my living constructing, I wouldn't find solving all that interesting or challenging.

Thanks to both C.C. and Patrick for the interview; I know what my next two book purchases will be.

Argyle said...

Great interview. I've been wondering about the phrase, "in the language". I'm pretty sure I know what it means but I'd like to know how long it's been around, where did it start and is it exclusive to crosswords?

Anonymous said...

Patrick Berry's puzzle is too tricky, unsolvable.

Carl said...

Patrick, terrific interview. I always enjoy your puzzles. Just ordered "Puzzle Masterpieces" at C.C.'s suggestion.

Clear Ayes said...

Having come fairly recently to crossword puzzles, I haven't had the opportunity to solve a Patrick Berry creation. After reading this interview, I'll have to make an effort to correct that.

Thanks again to C.C. for your efforts and thanks to Patrick Berry for an interesting interview.

Carl said...

Clear Eyes, you will be sure impressed with his puzzles. He is the best.

PJB-Chicago said...

Nicely done, C.C.! As Dennis said, it's a coup to score an interview with one of the most highly regarded constructors. Mr. Berry's apt and consise description of what he aims for in constructing, "cleanliness and liveliness" captures what I think most solvers look for in puzzles.
Great question about what he would put in an updated edition of his book, too.
Finally, I appreciate his take on inspiration being "wherever you find it." So true! (and why I always carry a pen and blank index cards with me!)
Thanks to both of you for the insights.
Can't wait to get the book!

embien said...

Great interview with one of the giants of the crossword biz, c.c.

I'm going right now to Amazon to order "Puzzle Masterpieces", it sounds delicious. (I already own "Crossword Puzzle Challenges for Dummies".)

Anonymous said...

Both books are masterpieces. All Patrick Berry puzzles are delightful.


Dan said...

Thanks C.C. and Patrick!

Dennis, I was surprised for the opposite reason -- would have thought most constructors solve regularly! But as we've learned here, they run the gamut in solving habits (and speeds).

You won't be disappointed with Puzzle Masterpieces... But you will be seriously challenged -- those variety crosswords are tough. Also: if you don't solve the Chronicle of Higher Education puzzles, recent ones can be found here (Across Lite).