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Jan 8, 2009

Interview with Alan P. Olschwang

Alan P. Olschwang is one of the most prolific constructors. His puzzles have appeared in NY Times, NY Sun (now The Sun Crosswords), LA Times, Wall Street Journal and other major newspapers in the US, including TMS. Since I started blogging on Jan 21, 2008, we've solved 54 of his grids. Six of them are Sunday 21*21, all the others are Thursday quips/quotes.

His "Play Ball" puzzle is my all time TMS favorite. But due to my special background, I don't always grok the humor and fun in his quips. I was so pleased that he took time answering my questions. I found them to be very fascinating.

Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you develop this interest in crossword construction?

I am a lawyer by vocation, crossword author by avocation. I've been a lawyer since 1966. Originally from Chicago. I've been General Counsel of a company since 1983, moving first to New York and then to California. I'm due to retire from my job March 30 of this year, but will work part-time for a while after that.

I've been solving puzzles as far back as I can remember. I guess I inherited the aptitude, if that's the right word. Someone I grew up with told me that she remembers my father laying on our couch solving crosswords in ink (of course I would never consider solving a puzzle in pencil).

Thinking about my eventual retirement, in 1994 I started composing puzzles. I didn't own a computer then and created them on paper, in ink of course. Eventually I was successful in getting one publisher to accept my puzzles. Before long, I got a computer and a software program to assist the progress. That got me more acceptances. Now I have several hundred puzzles published each year (not only crosswords), although the business is getting tougher - more writers, less outlets. I've been published by almost every publisher, and my only unfilled goal is to get a New York Times Sunday puzzle published (I have had 15X puzzles in the NYT from time to time). I've been most successful over the years with Tribune, both with Wayne Williams and his predecessor. I think I average 8 or 9 puzzles a month with them (They publish two puzzles each weekday, one unthemed).

Oh, by the way, I've been married for 43 years, and we have three children, each of which is married and has two children.

Why do you pick up quip/quote as your signature style? How are they different from a normal themed puzzle? They don't need to follow the symmetrical rule, do they?

Yes, they do follow the symmetrical rule, which is what makes it tough to find quotes that will work. While it is my signature style with Tribune (aside from my unthemed puzzles which are published one per week), it's really not my signature style. With other publishers I rarely use quote puzzles. Wayne Williams likes to use them though, and I like to create theme. It is not always easy to come up with novel themes for normal puzzles, so it's nice variety to spend some time looking for good quotes and others trying to come up with good non-quote themes.

How did you get the idea of using Evan Esar as your main source of quips? What other sources do you also use for inspiration?

He is not really my main source, and I'm done with him for 15X puzzles. What happened was my wife and I were playing bridge at someone's house some years back. I noticed a book of quips and quotes (Evan Esar's) on their bookshelves and borrowed it. There're 20,000 quotes in the book, the great majority his own. It turned out to be a fertile source, so I got my own copy and used it for a long time. What I've done in the past when I didn't use that book is to use a couple of other books I found (not nearly as good), a few periodicals I had access to, Reader's Digest (Quotable Quotes), Forbes Quote and on rare occasions quotes that appeared in Time Magazine. Now I almost exclusively browse around online. The trick is to try to avoid repeating quotes. Neither my memory nor record keeping are perfect, and sometimes the same quote is claimed by more than one person.

What kind of puzzles do you solve every day? Who are your favorite constructors?

Each week I solve the Thursday, Friday and Saturday NYT puzzles. I don't know the authors though, as my Orange County Register does not include the author's name except on Sunday. I accumulate the two Sunday puzzles on my paper (NYT and Tribune - except when the Tribune is mine, maybe once every six weeks). I take those with me when I travel and do them on the planes. I think I did nine of them in the last two days, as I had not been on a plane since early December. My local daughter-in-law gave me a book of 1001 NYT puzzles. That's the other solving I do regularly. I'm determined to finish the book one day, but it has been maybe three years now and I'm only through puzzle 364. I keep track of my errors. I have 253 erros on those 364 puzzles. I don't realy have favorite constructors, but Frank Longo, Patrick Berry, Rich Norris, Norma Steinberg and Brent Emmett Quigley are certainly among the elite. Rich publishes a goodly number of my puzzles, and Patrick has published several. The bottom line though is that I'd rather construct than solve.

Any tips for our TMS solvers on how to improve our solving skills?

I'm reading a book right now called "Outliers". Reading that book teaches me that there's really only one important tip, solve, solve, solve. One of the author's premises is that to be a star in any field (sports, arts, business, etc), one must practice for a minimum of 10,000 hours. Up to that number, the more you practice, the better you do. I should tell you that, among the elite solvers, I don't stack up very well. I attended Will Shortz' annual tournament twice. Although I did a little better the second time, my recollection is that about 2/3 of the attendees did better than me. I'm told this is rather common for constructors, though some are great solvers. I had to miss the last two years' tournaments, but hope to make it this year (It's always at the end of Feburary/beginning of March). I have been doing more solving since I last attended, so, if the author of "Outlier" is right, I should do better. One thing I noticed at the tournaments though is that I don't function like the superstars. I don't think I can train myself to be a speed solver. But, back to your question, my basic tip would simply be the more you can do, the better you will get. And here's a second tip I just thought of. I almost will never give up on puzzle. If I'm stuck, I will sometimes sit with it, maybe for days, before moving to another one. There are times though that I get stuck with a puzzle one day and put it down, then, when I picked it up the next day, the solution flows. I'm convinced one's subconscious keeps working when you think the puzzle is out of your mind. So, tip two, don't be impatient and give up, or cheat, or even look up words in dictionary. Keep working on the puzzle. If you're stymied, put it down and come back to it, maybe the next day. You'd be surprised what you can accomplish.

Thank you, Mr. Olschwang.

14 comments:

Dick said...

Hello CC. Another nice interview. Thanks.

Dennis said...

C.C., just a great interview! And Alan's exactly right, when you get stumped, your subconscience keeps right on plugging away, and when you pick it up again, it's amazing how the answer will usually jump out.
My compliments on getting yet another constructor interview; you're becoming a celebrity in your own right.

Dr. Dad said...

Ditto, C.C., on the interview.

I did this one in 5 minutes and 14 seconds. Dennis probably did it in 4 minutes or less.

Today is Bubble Bath Day and Elvis' Birthday. It is also Midwife's Day, National Joy Germ Day (????), National English Toffee Day, Man Watcher's Day, and Show and Tell at Work Day. Some of the Sirens will probably want to watch us men in the bubble bath and then tell about it at work.

Have a great Thursday.

lois said...

CC: How nice of Mr. O. to respond and be so candid. Your questions are great. I thoroughly enjoyed the interview. Good job!! That's 2. Who's next? You're awesme, CC.

Dr.G said...

C.C.,

Ditto to all the remarks. It certainly was a great interview.

Crockett1947 said...

What a nice interview. Than k you Mr. Olschwang for allowing us to know more about you. Solve, solve, solve.

Razzberry said...

C. C. - Spectacular job! You rule! Thank you for your continued efforts to make our crosswording more enjoyable. Here is a Vodka shot at you…

Mr. Olschwang – Thank you for your considerable constructing skills and taking time to visit with CC and her blog. We are a crazy bunch but we have one thing in common, we all have fun with crosswording.

Clear Ayes said...

C.C. Congratulations on your scoop. That was an interesting interview. It is fun to "put a personality" to one of the regular constructors.

Unfortunately, I don't think there is too much chance for me to follow Mr.Olschwang's advice and spend 10,000 hours perfecting my crossword solving ability. I will just have to settle for the enjoyment of a "one-a-day" puzzle and the pleasure of this company. :0)

JD said...

C.C., another great interview, and now Mr. Olschwang is not just a name. I appreciate the making of a quote c/w more so than before(although they are my least favorite).Looks like it will take me another 3 years to catch up to some of our 5 min. bloggers. I do leave the puzzle and come back to it, and I agree it helps.Thanks Mr.O.

Vern said...

You are correct in thinking that your mind keeps working on an answer even after your consciously stopped seeking the answer. This is why when you are striving to come up with a name, a movie title, an actor, etc. and can't, you finally give up.....but shortly afterword, the answer suddenly comes to you. Our minds are wonderful, mysterious things and serve us well. This phenomenon is also true in the area of creativity, working both when we are awake and asleep.

Anonymous said...

Have you interviewed Diane Baldwin yet? Just wondering?

C. C. said...

Vern,
Nice to hear from you.

Anonymous @ 5:05am,
No. Do you have Diane Baldwin's contact address? I'd love to interview her.

g8rmomx2 said...

Hi c.c. and all,

No googling for me the last 5 puzzles, but I don't bother timing myself as I don't think I can compete with Dennis or DrDad. I would guess 15 to 20 minutes on each day.

c.c.: Wonderful interviews on both Mr. Barry Silk and Mr. Olschwang. As Dennis said you are becoming quite the "celebrity". Thanks to both of them for sharing themselves with us.

As all of you know by now The GATORS won the National Championship, sorry Dr. Dad!

Linda: Yes, Tebow and the GATORs rock for sure. No, in answer to your question if I went to the game in person. However, My husband and youngest daughter went, and my oldest daughter went with her boyfriend, his brother and father. When my youngest bought the tickets it was on a lottery system and at the time we didn't even know who was going to be in the championship game so she bought two tickets which included the Orange Bowl game, fan fest, tailgating party and of course the National Championship game and parking. I stayed home and watched it on my big screen and babysat the dog. My husband got home at 4am this morning as it is a 2 1/2 hour ride home from the other coast. What an incredible win!

luxor said...

ref. 22D: 12 Angry Men shoukd get 12 stars because that's how many are in the movie. One of the BEST.