Apr 10, 2012

Interview with David Steinberg

David Steinberg made his NY Times debut last June when he was only 14 years old, making him the second youngest constructor of the Will Shortz era, according to Jim Horne's wonderful Xword Info. He looks so sweet!

Today is only our second puzzle by David. But with his "picky" attitude, I'm sure we'll be entertained and challenged by many quality puzzles from him in the future.

First of all, thanks for putting HARMON (46D) in the grid. I'm curious, is "Long time Tiger Woods coach Butch __" your original clue? Harmon Killebrew is my all-time favorite.

You're welcome--in fact, I wasn't sure whether HARMON was famous enough when I originally decided to use it as an entry in my puzzle, since CRUCIVERB.com showed that it had only appeared three times in previous crosswords. So I asked my dad, who's a big sports fan and avid TV watcher, and he assured me that both Harmon Killebrew and Mark Harmon were very well-known. So, to answer your question, my original clue was "'NCIS' star Mark," because it seemed more contemporary. But I think Rich Norris made the clue better, more original, and a bit more Tuesday-ish.

How did this ABC embed idea come to you? What were the other theme entries you also considered?

I don't remember exactly how the idea came to me--I often think of crossword ideas at random times (at the dinner table, on the way home from school, etc.). The original version of this puzzle had the entry STAB CAESAR in it. Rich Norris initially rejected the puzzle--he liked the theme but thought STAB CAESAR was too contrived. So I wrote him back and suggested a few replacements, including CAB COMPANY, TAB CONTROL, TAB COLLARS, and DRAB COLORS. He liked CAB COMPANY and said he'd be interested in seeing a revision. I had to redo the whole grid because I couldn't come up with a good entry for ??Y?B. And that's how this puzzle came to be!

You're only 15 years old and already had 5 puzzles published by the NY Times and 2 by the LA Times. What prompted you to make your first puzzle?

I decided to try my hand at constructing crosswords after watching Merl Reagle make the process seem so amazingly simple in the documentary Wordplay. I figured that if Merl Reagle could make a puzzle so quickly, I might be able to make one too (though obviously a lot more slowly!). I made my first 10 crosswords by hand on graph paper when I was 12 and 13 because I thought using computer software was cheating. I then transferred them into grids I'd made in Microsoft Excel. It was a really complicated system, especially when I had to make changes. And putting the numbers in the Excel squares was really hard. Eventually I realized that most other constructors used computer software and that that wasn't cheating, so I bought Crossword Compiler. Looking back on my hand-constructed puzzles, I now realize they had a lot of flaws, which Will Shortz helpfully pointed out. After I switched to Crossword Compiler, I found the whole construction process a lot easier and more accessible. The hand construction did help me learn how to build my own grids, though, which I think is very valuable. All of this is how I eventually ended up where I am now!

Which part do you normally spend the most time on in the construction process: theme brainstorming, gridding or cluing?

I definitely spend the most time filling the grids--I'm very picky about what I put into my fills. I've gotten a lot pickier over time as I've seen more puzzles and read the critiques on the blogs, which make pretty clear what solvers like and what they don't. Because I am so picky, filling can take me several hours. But I think it's worth it--entries like TOM THUMB and SNOBBERY are more interesting than ones like ESNE and ANOA. As for cluing, I spend a lot of time trying to make my clues as original and clever as possible while sticking to the day of the week I'm aiming for.

What puzzles do you solve every day and which constructors constantly inspire you?

I solve the New York Times crossword every day, often the minute it's up online; the Los Angeles Times crossword in the newspaper, which we get every day (and the Sunday Los Angeles Times puzzle online or printed out); Merl Reagle's puzzle every Sunday; and the Newsday crossword in a local paper we get here. In addition, I recently subscribed to Fireball and try to solve those puzzles (often unsuccessfully--they're really hard!) every week. One constructor who constantly inspires me is Merl Reagle--it amazes me how he puts out a top-quality Sunday crossword every week! I also really admire the themeless puzzles by Barry Silk, Joe Krozel, and David Quarfoot. Kevin Der's rebuses are amazing, and Andrea Carla Michaels's early-week puzzles are always fun too.

Besides crosswords, what are your other interests?

Crosswords take up most of my life outside of school! But I'm also interested in computer science and table tennis. When I'm not working on crosswords for submission or doing homework for school, I run a custom crossword business www.customcrossword.com. I've also donated custom crosswords to help good causes.


NW George said...

I think Merl Reagle's puzzles are good and enjoyed his punny cluing. but he doesn't put out a good puzzle every week. In fact, 90% of the puzzles printed in the newspapers are repeats of 6 to 8 years ago. If you haven't seen them before, enjoy. If you've been doing them for awhile, they're a bore. Don't know why newspapers pay for rerun puzzles; probably because they're cheap (Merl probably concentrates his time on selling his books)

I enjoy working your puzzles, and to think you are constructing this quality at 15-years just blows me away. Keep it up, please!

Anonymous said...

Amen. Glad I'm not that only one who noticed Merl's old work.

Steven J. St. John said...

Great interview. David certainly doesn't sound like a 15-year old. Interesting that you asked about the clue for Harmon, because when I worked the puzzle today it reminded me of working a Sporcle quiz yesterday on the Masters champions - I had remembered then that Butch's dad Claude won the Masters in the 40s. So there's a late-week clue to add to Killebrew, Mark, and Butch.

Keep up the good work David.

Chickie said...

A great interview, David. I'm so impressed that a 15 year has this great ability to construct a quality crossword puzzle. I'll look forward to more offerings from your CW pencil.

Lemonade714 said...

Yes, SJ SJ and Mark Harmon's father TOM won the Heisman Trophy playing for Michigan in 1940. There are many famous Harmons out there. It is great to have more of your interviews C.C.; this has always been a special part of the Corner

andrea carla michaels said...

Loved the interview...thanks for the shout out, David!

As someone who grew up in Minnesota in the 70s, I'd have liked to have seen a Killebrew reference. Tiger's coach is tough for a Tuesday, but maybe not for a golfer like the editor!

Anyway, CC, you captured young David's voice and how hard he's been working at this and the maturity way beyond his years...plus he's a delight in person (as are his parents, never more than 3 feet away! ;) A very warm and loving family!)

Anonymous said...

David, I applaud you for doing such a great, possible-to-do X-word puzzle for Monday, May 7. It is refreshing to have someone who apparently isn't trying to out-do the puzzlers of all time by making their clues so clever that I can not solve the puzzles. At your tender age, you probably haven't yet had to try to be the brightest bulb on the tree. You are probably an advanced kid in school, I'll bet. When I was fifteen I was one month away from graduating from high school at Alexandria, Alabama, then entering college at age sixteen. I am a life-long lover of words.

Please keep up the good puzzle work. And thanks again for today's good puzzle.

Julia in Bend Oregon