Jul 18, 2013

Interview with Julian Lim

Julian Lim is one of the few constructors who consistently delight solvers with their innovative themes and brilliant grid designs. Today's themeless-like 72-worder is a good example. It's tricky to start with a 8-letter theme entry, as it automatically results in stacked 8's & 6's.

Julian has been published by the NY Times, LA Times, Fireball & The Chronicle of High Education. We're very lucky to have covered all of Julian's LA Times creations here at the corner. You can click here to view all of them. 

Can you tell us a bit about your background? I sense a Malaysia/Singapore root from the spelling of your surname. It's often spelled as Lin & Lam in Chinese & Cantonese.
 
You're spot on -- I was born and went to school in Singapore. I then spent most of my 20s in the United States, first in college then grad school, before moving back home as a post-doc. My background is in psychology and neuroscience, and I work mostly with human brain imaging.

As far as I know, I'm the only regular American crossword constructor who lives in this neck of the woods. Crosswords puzzles aren't big here, but I'm trying to convert as many people as I can!

How did you get into crossword construction?

I started doing cryptic puzzles when I was in my teens, and then switched over to American-style puzzles (mostly the NYT) when I entered college. I'd avoided American puzzles previously on the mistaken assumption that they were "simple", and learned a sharp lesson when I first encountered an NYT themeless. 

I'm not sure I can pinpoint the exact moment when I thought I'd try my hand at constructing, but I think it was a desperate way to distract myself from writing my dissertation. My first few grids took eternities to fill -- I remember going to bed dreaming of black-and-white squares. I sent some of those early puzzles to joon pahk, who had very nice things to say about them, and after several rejections I had my first published puzzle in the LAT, and in the NYT shortly after that.
 
How would you describe your puzzle style? I always associate your name with innovative idea, heavy theme & low word count.
 
I'm not sure that I have a distinctive style in the way some other constructors do. Perhaps one thing I do more often than others is have theme entries cross in a 15x15 to allow for 6 theme answers to be used. I've been able to get some pretty nice grids using that approach without sacrificing fill quality.  I do enjoy innovative themes, but hitting on them is a chance and rare occurrence (usually happens when I'm in a bar), so I will use more standard theme types if I can find an interesting set of answers. I can also get a little *too* innovative at times -- a few of my rejections for themed puzzles over the years have basically been: "I don't get it". Perhaps I should start a website with a compilation of themes editors didn't understand.

Which part do you enjoy the most in the construction process: theme development, filling or cluing?

Filling is the most fun part of the process for me. I like it especially because even after you reach the standard of producing publishable work you stilll get to raise the bar for yourself (using fewer partials, abbrvs. and so forth). One thing I've noticed is that I've developed a sort of sixth sense about how to make a grid that will fill in a tidy way, and that's made the process a lot less frustrating and more enjoyable as well.

I used to enjoy cluing a lot more when I first started out, but of course it gets harder and harder over time to clue the little repeaters, especially in early-week puzzles. It's also a little vexing to spend a long time coming up with a great clue only to have it edited out. Cluing themelesses is always a blast though.
 
You've made both themed and themeless puzzles. What are the major differences in your approach to fill?
 
Apart from the fact that themelesses obviously start from a glamor seed entry, really not that much. I fill many of my puzzles (both themed and themeless)  from the bottom right, with the exception of those that have tightly constrained spots in the middle of the grid. I think one difference might be that with themelesses I'll try several different versions of a corner after finding one that's acceptable and then pick my favorite,  so it takes me several times longer to make a themeless grid. 

Besides crosswords, what are your other hobbies?

My hobbies have changed over the years. I used to be involved in singing (both choral and a cappella) and duplicate bridge when I was younger, but not so much nowadays. I like jogging and LesMills classes. I also try and travel as much as I can.
 

5 comments:

Lemonade714 said...

Thank you for the interview and the opportunity to get to know Julian; it is hard to think that Joon Pahk has been around long enough to have mentored Julian. I wonder if it is difficult to keep current with US cultural references living on the other side of the world. It is nice to see a psychology background in a constructor.

Irish Miss said...

Very informative and interesting to learn more about one of our more formidable constructors. Thank you, CC, and Julian.

Gareth Bain said...

Oh, that's why I can't come up with more innovative puzzle ideas! I need to go to more bars!

Joon said...

i can't imagine that i deserve much, if any, of the credit for julian becoming such an excellent and versatile constructor. he was already immensely talented when he sent me a couple of puzzles to look over a few years ago. i gave him a little encouragement and a few of my opinions (or, generously, "advice").

Mangesh ghogre said...

Great to know more about Julian. Feels nice to know more about fellow constructor from Singapore ...much closer to India ...than folks in US.

Thanks JULIAN for sharing your views.. And CC for airing them..