May 10, 2009

Interview with John Lampkin

Do you know what ESEL is? It's a Düsseldorf donkey. It exists only in Germany. And it exists in crossword too. It's also the word that introduced a new crossword constructor to me: John Lampkin .

John started constructing only 18 months ago. But today's "Mothers of Invention" puzzle is already his 4th LAT Sunday puzzle (5th overall). His puzzles have also been published by "The Chronicles of Higher Education", edited by the legendary Patrick Berry. He is also one of the authors whose puzzles appear in Simon & Schuster's 2009 collections, together with Barry Silk and many other excellent constructors in the country.

John is also a musician and a composer. When I wrote to him a week ago, he was chasing and photographing birds and butterflies in a Nature Fest. Hope you enjoy the interview.

How did this Mother's Day theme come to you? And which theme answers/fills gave you the most trouble during construction and how did you reconcile the changes?

The idea for Mothers of Invention came last June the way so many do, with a single theme entry. Then the challenge becomes one of finding enough good ones to make a puzzle. Originally, I didn’t have any women inventors in there at all, just the usual famous men following the formula, “When so-and-so invented the whatever, he [phrase that roughly means success].” The problem quickly became one of having too many to chose from so I narrowed the focus to women inventors, thinking that it would make an appropriate puzzle for March, Women’s Month. Rich Norris found the idea attractive enough to commit it to the Mothers Day slot, so I set to work on the grid, fill, and cluing. What I enjoy about the puzzle is that it educates the solver about some very clever and determined women, and even if you have never heard of them, you can still solve the puzzle.

What is your background? How does music influence your solving/construction?

I’ve been a professional musician, composer, and private piano teacher for the past 40 years. Though some of my musical colleagues disagree, I find that puzzle construction is a lot like composing a piece of music. Most of my music falls into the programmatic/tone poem category. For example, one of my woodwind quintets is titled, “Insects, a Musical Entomology in Six Legs,” where each leg is a movement depicting a little critter. As with my “Mothers of Invention” puzzle, the idea came first, then was developed as elegantly as possible. In many ways, a composition or puzzle is “finished” once you have a strong, workable idea. All you have to do then is fill in the blanks, so to speak.

How would you describe your style? What kind of theme/answers are you gravitating to or trying to avoid?

Since I started constructing just eighteen months ago, it’s perhaps to soon to identify my style. Meanwhile, it’s fun studying and exploring the different ways of developing puzzles ideas that have been used over the years. As my style develops, a big thank you goes to Nancy Salomon who mentored me from the outset and continues to give sound, solid critiques. She is incredibly generous with her time and a tough teacher. Working with Nancy is like having a second brain! The Sunday level of difficulty is naturally where I live, but Vic Fleming suggested a marvelous exercise of analyzing 25 Monday/Tuesday puzzles, and writing out in detail what makes them work. That opened my eyes to possibilities for the easy end of the spectrum.

Who are you favorite constructors and why? And which is your all time favorite puzzle?

There are so many excellent constructors that it wouldn’t be fair to single one out. As for a favorite, that’s easy: Merl Reagle’s recent Simpsons puzzle because it linked two genres so beautifully, crosswords and sitcom.

What else do you do for fun? What is the one thing that people find most surprising about you?

Everything I do is fun. Life is too short to do stuff that ain’t fun. I truly love my livelihood, private piano teaching, composing and performing, and will never retire. Other interests include birding, butterflying, and nature photography. I’ve self-published four books of photographs which are “travel guides like no other” laced with my own quirky commentary.

What surprises people the most is that I’m largely self-educated with no music or college degree. My advice to all is that if you want to do something, just do it. Surround yourself with the best possible talent, strive for the top, and enjoy the process. Crossword construction is an art form that you don’t need to study formally, and the community of constructors and editors is a most friendly and supportive one. It is an honor and blessing to be a small part of it.

Thanks, John

C.C.

PS: Too bad, this newspaper got John's first interview yesterday. I like how the article started. Very creative.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

C.C., only eight K. Impossible puzzle.

Frustrated in Chicago

Dennis said...

This interview just serves to confirm my feeling that the eclectic community of crossword constructors is made up of really good, interesting people. I particularly like John's philosophy; get as much fun as possible out of life.

Another superb interview, C.C. - I really enjoy hearing about how these different constructors arrived here.

C. C. said...

Frustrated in Chicago,
I counted again. There are 9 K's.

Dennis,
I like John's sunny & positive attitude too. Was so impressed by the time and effort he put into this puzzle. Really liked his "Just do it" advice.

maria said...

Good morning, c.c. and co.

Got as far as " gotahoneyof " then came here and read the interview , Very awe inspiring and up-lifting human being, that John Lampkin.

Thanks, c.c.

Imbo for my spinning class, but i' ll tackle the rest of the puzzle later.

Ciao

Crockett1947 said...

Another great interview. You go to such lengths to make the crossword world understandable and accessible for all of us. Thank you C.C. and thank you John Lampkin.

Clear Ayes said...

It is amazing to me that Mr. Lampkin has developed this level of construction skill in only 18 months. I guess either you have IT or you don't. He obviously has IT.

We are getting used to C.C. excellent interviews. This one with John Lampkin is no exception. Thanks to both of you.

WM said...

C.C and Mr. Lampkin...thank you for the terrific interview.

My father was a high school music teacher and was a very funny and creative guy also. I think there is a direct tie-in to the ability to compose in both words and music.

I also loved Mr. Lampkin's life philosophy...the entomolgy suite is terrifically clever and I can imagine the books books are quite humorous. It is great to have this insight as to what lurks in the minds of the puzzle creators.