Feb 27, 2010

Interview with Brad Wilber

Brad Wilber's puzzles are just plain hard. He's a master at creating Augusta National - style late week themeless puzzles. I am just a weekend duffer who still has not figured out how to fade/draw.

Brad made his LAT debut in March, 2008. Since then, he has made 15 puzzles for the LA Times. Brad has also had 17 puzzles published by the NY Times. All of them are challenging themeless.

Hope this interview helps us get to know Brad a bit and understand the wide range of knowledge needed in order to solve his puzzles.

What is the seed entry for this puzzle? And what kind of troubles did you go through to make the grid work?

I started out with TRICK CANDLE. It was one of those moments where the entry and the clue came to me almost simultaneously, although as I write this I don't know if Rich went with my original clue or not ("It's wind-resistant?"). I found multiword entries to go on top of it, and then the Elton John song "ISLAND GIRL" presented itself as a possible crossing and as something I wanted to keep if I could. The whole northwest corner of the puzzle has been in existence for about 3 years; the rest of the puzzle went through several half-hearted drafts over a long period before I arrived at something I liked enough to submit.

Which are your favorite entries in this puzzle and which ones do you expect a few groans from solvers?

Well, as I mentioned above, I kept the upper left stacks "alive" and intact for a long time, because I saw an opportunity for a couple of new entries. I hope people have fun in that area of the puzzle. WALDO PEPPER was the opposite of a "favorite," but maybe some out there will remember the movie. Nice early role for Susan Sarandon. Interestingly, there was a real-life screenwriter named WALDO SALT, who won Oscars for "Midnight Cowboy" and "Coming Home." There must be a connection, eh?

What is your background and how does that influence your puzzle style?

I'm the son of two teachers and I now work as a college librarian. I have to field questions from students in all disciplines, and I have to help develop the collection in all those disciplines, as well. A lot of my regular work life is about "something for everyone," or "be ready for anything," and maybe that is reflected in my puzzle philosophy. I tend to mix eras as well, without thinking much about it. For some, that adds charm, and for others, I'm letting the nostalgic overshadow the contemporary. Back in my teens I used to tackle the Sunday New York Times puzzle with almost complete dependence on a phalanx of crossword dictionaries and the patient coaching of a dear "Phone-a-Friend"--a school colleague of my dad's. My pop-culture radar was so narrow--she had to do all the heavy lifting on Big Band singers and Hedda Hopper and Ipana toothpaste and goodness knows what else. Maybe the way I work sometimes is an unconscious tribute to the breadth that Roberta tried to give me over those many years.

None of the five Wilber LAT puzzles I've blogged is themed. What are the reasons behind your preferences for themeless?

The sad-sack copout answer is that theme ideas don't come easily to me any more. Once upon a time I was as guilty as anyone of overworking the rebus, or the letter-drop, or whatever, so that when some editors declared certain theme avenues officially dead, I felt I had fully participated in the flogging. Now, with the moratorium in place, even though I have a sincere interest in jump-starting that side of my puzzle brain and becoming more versatile by doing some early-week or mid-week themed puzzles, I have an idea that it's harder than ever to break in. I'm tough on themes as a solver, too, which scares my constructor side. I'm pretty much on board with Brendan Quigley's essay "Ten Bullshit Themes," which you link to in your December interview with him. To deliver a theme with "wow factor" in today's market, it takes at least some inspiration, not just determination to get more mileage out of an old jalopy of a theme. Fortunately, we have many constructors out there who maintain good connections to their Muses.

I guess I've managed a modest bagful of nice themes over the years, especially in my early work with Dell and with John Samson at Simon & Schuster. I wouldn't mind seeing a stronger comeback for some of the kinds of themes the late Frances Hansen did--like where each theme entry is the response to an interview question. I did one in that vein called "The Chicken and the Ego," which read like sound bites from a celebrity rooster with poultry puns in each one. It's probably still kicking around out there in reprints. Well, you may see me on a Wednesday or Thursday someday. Since October I haven't done any puzzles for publication except a few for the student newspaper--the Houghton Star--at the college where I work. That forced me into themed mode a bit. We'll see. Themed or themeless, I'd like to get back into constructing again now that some other writing projects are finished.

As far as the "hurray for themeless" side of the coin, I like the potential for more multiword entries and the challenge of trying to engineer the first appearance of a word or phrase. I think most constructors are tinkerers, in that we look at many, many different fill configurations before we commit ourselves. Themeless puzzles allow for maximum indulgence of tinkering, since you're not working around letter combinations that are locked in because of the execution of a theme.

What makes a themeless sparkle for you? The fresh multi-word entries? The never-appeared cool names?

Yes, all those things, plus great cluing--tricksy but fair, with a few clues where I learn something. Like most people I admire unimpeachably "clean" fill in a themeless. The Patrick Berry plateau. And I'm often intrigued by themeless puzzles with a dual byline--I find myself speculating on how the collaboration actually worked. I'd love to try it sometime. Who's game?

What references tools do you use for cluing and fact checks? And from where do you draw puzzle inspiration?

Ah, this is where working in a library comes in very handy. I don't stock my home office with reference works aside from the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, because I have ready access to so many items that can help with verifications. Having said that, sometimes I make a beeline for Wikipedia like everybody else, even after I've issued caveats to students about it. (This question reminds me that
I went to grad school with someone who was pursuing a library science degree specifically to further his puzzle career. The puzzle career ended up being relatively brief from what I can see, but I hope he recouped his investment!)

Puzzle fodder can come from everywhere. The nice thing about having lots of friends who are writers is that I'm not the only one to whip out a notebook in the middle of conversation and write down an idea somebody else gave me. Sometimes my friends realize instantly what I am doing and even propose their own clues! The best puzzle entries are usually ones that you just run into in daily life, not ones you have to unearth, so I make a point of not "trolling" for puzzle entries. Enough of them come along without me doing that.

What is the highlight of your crossword career? And why?

It's hard to beat the first time you see your name in print. For me that was in Dell Champion [magazine] in the early 1990s sometime. I wasn't too long out of college, and I remember setting the magazine on the coffee table, open to the right page, and trying to go about my day but feeling drawn back to stare at the puzzle.

The beginning of my regular appearances in newspaper markets and the emergence of the crossword blog kind of coincide, and lots of rewarding moments have come from the instant-feedback world constructors now live in. An entire puzzle getting a good reception...or individual entries solvers liked, or clues I wrote that the editor kept and then the blogosphere approved, etc. Criticism, especially memorably worded, can turn into a favorite moment because it's the quickest route to insights on what the audience needs from you. There's not much point in being defensive about minutiae in a puzzle that doesn't go over well--you just let it shape your approach and hone your instincts on how to deliver something that has plenty of rigor but also has "solver empathy."

I made my L.A. Times debut during the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament a couple of years ago, and that was a highlight. I was flattered that Rich felt the piece had the kind of panache that would please everybody at ACPT using it as an incidental practice puzzle, and it was the beginning of an ongoing working relationship that I really value.

What kind of advice would you give to solvers who struggle with your puzzles? Personally I just feel so inadequate tackling your work.

Yikes, that sounds like a question for somebody else to answer. Some of you will know Joon Pahk, who's a frequent blog contributor and a talented constructor in his own right. He used to experience epic frustration levels over puzzles of mine, but I think he'd say he's kind of "cracked" me in the last year. We have some common interests--we both are tennis fans, I think, and have strong literature/art/theater backgrounds--so perhaps that helped him stick with me a bit longer. Maybe he'll write in to say that there IS hope!

I haven't set out to be anybody's nemesis, but I do like my puzzles hard, and I admit I tend to construct and clue for the Solver Who's Seen Everything--the Amy Reynaldos and the Dan Feyers of the world. I would hope that part of the answer to getting better at my puzzles is simply getting better at late-week difficulty in general. But I'm always open to the idea that if solvers find me continually inaccessible then the onus is on me to do something about it. Making puzzles vocabulary-based rather than a minefield of proper nouns is something I've become more conscious of. I'm known in my circle for having the best memory for names and titles--nobody will play "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" with me, for example--so I've found I must take care to adjust my ideas of "well-known." It's such ticklish territory, isn't it-- discussions of what solvers "should" know? One person's first fill-in is another person's last.

Even if it is a constructor's responsibility to keep to the familiar, I think solvers--myself included--can expand their "familiar" and make great leaps in proficiency by even just nudging up their alertness to stuff in their environment, in the media, etc. Did your neighbor get a new aquarium fish originally bred in Japan? Did the TV chef use a fancy liqueur in a recipe? New baby in "Baby Blues" or botanically-named character in "Brenda Starr"? A mental note--or a literal note--on any one of these things could rescue you on a given day. Laura CHINCHILLA just became the first woman president of Costa Rica--how long before some enterprising constructor does something with that? And look for new twists on the old standby entries. Brian ENO just scored the film version of "The Lovely Bones"--I haven't run across that clue yet, but you can bet there is a puzzle already in the pipeline somewhere that leaped on that little nugget.

What kind of crosswords do you solve daily and who are your favorite constructors?

As far as newspaper puzzles I stick mostly to the New York Times and the L.A. Times. I pick one or the other to solve Monday through Thursday, and then Friday through Sunday I do pretty much all the puzzles on Orange's blog. There are quite a few themeless constructors who get a fist pump from me when I see their byline because I enjoy them so much: Byron Walden (not just for his august initials), Joe Di Pietro, Patrick Berry,
Paula Gamache, Barry Silk, Doug Peterson, Brendan Emmett Quigley, Tony Orbach, Mark Diehl--I've left people out, I'm sure. For themes I look for Liz Gorski, David Kahn, and Joe Krozel. I do buy crossword puzzle books, too. I'm waiting for Frank Longo to do another Cranium Crushing Crosswords--and I haven't gotten The Wrath of [Bob] Klahn yet, but I look forward to it.


Besides crosswords, what else do you do for fun?

Another milieu where I have some name recognition is in the opera blogosphere, because I write about New York's Metropolitan Opera (even though I don't live in New York City and only go to the Met once or twice a year!) When I'm at the ACPT event in Brooklyn [the latest edition completed just last weekend], I always meet a few people who know of me both in the puzzle context and the opera context. That's really fun for me. These are the people for whom opera entries are gimmes--a small population!

I collect antique editions of juvenile mystery series, like the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, and quite a few others. I read a lot in contemporary fiction and history, and I'm a new convert to online book swapping. I'm a big sports watcher; I visited Vancouver B.C. last summer so I spent more time on the Olympics this year than I do normally. I'm also a film buff. I've said before on the Wordplay blog that I'm nearing the end of a long project to watch every film ever nominated for an Oscar in "major categories." I'm good with most genres except for monster movies and horror. Since childhood I've had an overactive startle response--not an asset in the movie theater, although I guess I'm glad to be a source of mirth for my friends! I enjoyed stuff like "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Exorcist" as part of the Oscar project, but I have to say that when I got around to "Aliens" (1986), I watched most of the last act on fast-forward. Does that still count?

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Never heard of Waldo Pepper or Waldo Salt or any Waldo seasoning. Excellent interview, Brad.

Dennis said...

Best. Interview. Here. Ever.

Thanks.

Andrea said...

Thanks for the great interview and insight into an interesting puzzle maker.

CC, loved the weekend duffer line!

Doug said...

LILETEE is my Amen Corner. I enjoyed the challenge.

MJ said...

Wow! Another terrific interview! Thank you, C.C. As usual, your questions are insightful and apropos the constructor.

Thank you, Brad Wilber, for taking the time to respond and share with us. Your statement, "One person's first fill-in is another person's last" hit home with me. As I've learned from following this blog, it's so very true.

Orange said...

Great interview!

What Brad said about "nudging up their alertness to stuff in their environment" is spot on. The most adept solvers, I think, have brains that instinctively lock onto words and names in a broad range of areas and deposit these words into the mental file cabinet from which they can be readily retrieved. If you do enough crosswords, eventually even the weirdest word will find its way into a puzzle—will you remember seeing it before?

Annette said...

Thanks for the great interview! It was really interesting. I like seeing how differently the constructors approach their bodies of work, and the amount of creativity and care go into the finished product!

I'm surprised to not have seen any constructors yet, that don't also solve a variety of puzzles. I would have expected to see some people who only enjoy the construction process.

I think that by doing both sides of the coin really keeps the constructors more grounded and in tuned to their audience. That's supported by how kindly they respond to C.C.'s requests for interviews, and openly share their thought processes, backgrounds and viewpoints with us.

The fact that so many constructors also check in on the blog and care about the reactions of the solvers to their puzzles is also very impressive. It's not easy to open yourself to possibly viewing criticism of your work. Of course, on this blog, they're more likely to see awe and flattery!

Thank you Brad for the interview and today's puzzle! And thank you C.C. for obtaining and sharing this interview with us.

Annette

Joon said...

thanks for the shout-out, brad. i don't know that it qualifies as a breakthrough, but i have gotten better at brad's puzzles over the past couple of years. it's due to a combination of several factors: 1) getting better at puzzles in general; 2) brad's puzzles getting easier, i think. the part where he mentions emphasizing everyday vocabulary at the expense of some of the you-know-it-or-you-don't entries is key. if you get a couple of those in one region of the grid, even a single tough clue for a "normal" answer can make the puzzle unfinishable. that used to happen all the time for me on brad's puzzles, and now not so much. of course, with the saturday LAT puzzle in particular, the cluing level overall has gotten so much easier in the past year. today's puzzle could have been a real bear with nastier clues.

Clear Ayes said...

A terrific interview with Brad Wilbur.

C.C. honed her questions to get the most out of her subject and Brad Wilbur was gracious enough to give her full and informative answers about his background and construction process.

It is interesting, but not surprising to find out that Brad W. is a college librarian.

I thought it is nice that he doesn't sniff at a trip down Wikipedia Lane. For many of us without his access, Wikipedia is a first stop.

Themes often escape me, so I tend to like themeless puzzles. They are usually more difficult than themed, but I like to go for the words/phrases themselves, rather than a clever wordplay theme.

Argyle said...

Brad Wilbur goes on my list of constuctors to look for, because of this interview as much as his puzzle.

Anonymous said...

Good questions. Great answers. Thank you both, Brad and CC.

Puzzle too tough.

Lemonade714 said...

Wonderful interview, and the watching Aliens on fast forward was very endearing. w\Which movies did you find were badky overrated and should never have won?

Doug P. said...

Great interview, CC & Brad. When I see Brad's byline, I know the puzzle is going to be a treat with lots of fresh entries.

As for a themeless collaboration, I'm game! Barry Silk and I have collaborated on a few themelesses, and we use different approaches depending on how the puzzle evolves. Sometimes one of us will construct most of the grid & one of us will write the clues, and other times we'll split both chores down the middle.

Dennis said...

Doug, Brad, that'd be an outstanding collaboration! I hope you guys'll do it.

Brad W said...

@Lemonade714. Beware the film that is nominated for Cinematography and nothing else, generally speaking. :-)

A BIG list of overrated films would surely get me in a lot of trouble. I'm a big fan of QUIZ SHOW, which means I have lingering resentment of FORREST GUMP's awards success at QUIZ SHOW's expense. PRINCE OF TIDES was a trial to get through. VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA showed just a tin ear for human interaction at every turn. Eek...I'll stop.

Carol said...

I also thoroughly enjoyed this interview. Lots of great information. Thanks, Brad.

*David* said...

I would probably say the best crossword constuctor interview, I've seen. Great answers with descriptions and isight into the process.

The Wilber puzzle have been "my type" since I am a generalist and know some things about a lot of subjects. Crosswordese is not my cup of tea and I'm a bit resistant to rote memorization.

On this puzzle I could fill in seven of the long fills with minimal crossings due to this. My killer was the SE corner where Redford and Ibsen made their presence known.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely loved Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Anonymous said...

It's not difficult to create hard puzzles when you don't use the correct information. I was doing one of his puzzles yesterday. The clue 1a was " Insurgent against pirfirio Diaz(1910).The correct answer should be Zapata, Emilio but his answer was Zapatista which only formed in 1994.