Aug 24, 2009

Interview with Bob Klahn

Have you wondered how a puzzle goes from the constructor's hands to your local paper?

Every puzzle goes through a make-over process. On average, Rich Norris (our LA Times Crossword Editor) changes 1/3 to 1/2 of the clues, adjusting the difficulty level, avoiding the repeat, injecting freshness and playfulness to the clues, and improving the accuracy. Then every puzzle is test-solved before publishing to ensure the ultimate accuracy of each clue and answer. Bob Klahn is Rich's final clue-checker.

Bob has had 57 puzzles published by NYT since 1994. His byline also appears regularly in Washington Post/CrosSynergy (twice a month). His book "The Wrath of Klahn Crosswords" will come out in Jan 2010.

Bob is known for the wickedness of his clues, and is regarded as "The Universe's Toughest Clue Writer". But oh my God, how evocative, original, imaginative, sweet and musical those clues are.

Jerome mentioned in his interview that his idea of a perfect puzzle would have clues written by Bob Klahn. Several other LAT constructors I've interviewed (and the amazing speed solver Dan Feyer) all listed Bob as one of their favorite constructors.

I asked Bob a few questions, and was so pleased that he took time answering them. Hope you enjoy the interview.

Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you get into crossword constructing?

See my ancient, untouched-in-years Web site for that answer:

What is your job responsibility as a fact-checker for Rich Norris? What kind of reference tools do you use?

I check everything I have the slightest doubt about, and I comment on everything. E.g., I'll always let Rich know when I think a clue could be worded more smoothly. He need not agree, of course.

I make heavy use of the Web, but I never rely on any single source. I also rely on my computerized base of over 35,000 published puzzles, all of which I've solved and annotated. E.g., if I'm checking a clue about an event, but the clue doesn't specify when the event occurred, I'll throw that in as an annotation.

What is the most memorable puzzle you've created? Why is it so special?

It's one of Will's favorites, my February 2nd, 1995 NYT. On New Year's Day, with bowl games in the background, I wondered if it was too late to send Will a Groundhog Day puzzle, and decided to give it a shot. I figured I needed to create the puzzle then and there and send it off to Will that day for it to have any chance of making it into the paper in time. So I started with PUNXATAWNEYPHIL across the eighth row, balanced GROUNDHOG and WOODCHUCK on either side of it, and was well along with the grid when it hit me: "Oh no, Phil isn't the 15-letter PUNXATAWNEYPHIL, he's the sixteen-letter PUNXSUTAWNEYPHIL! One letter too long!" Oh well, so much for that idea. Back to the bowl games.

But then I realized, "Wait a minute! What if I flip the grid and stick the leading P out the top? It's the perfect letter, as it looks like a head and neck! And 2-Across, echoing the 2/2 date, would then be the first Across entry. Oh yeah, I gotta do this!" So I flipped the grid, added in SHADOW balancing MARMOT, plus SIXWEEK across the middle, and completed the fill.

Now just the clues were left. The PUNXSUTAWNEYPHIL clue just had to be special, and I deliberated over that one for well over an hour. Finally I came up with what I consider to be one of my best clues ever, the triple "For the outlook, look out for his look out."

Puzzle complete! I sent it off to Will, he loved it, and expedited its processing. He told me later that getting my grid typeset was no easy matter; it just didn't fit in the Times' then-set-in-stone 15x15 space.

Your clues are always so elegant, refreshing and entertaining. What's your secret? What kind of books/magazines do you read for inspiration?

Thank you, C.C.

In early 1992 I decided that I was going to begin constructing crosswords for publication. I already knew I was good at grid-building, as I had won a number of grid-building contest back in the early '70s. But I had no idea how to write good clues. So, before submitting a single puzzle to anyone, I spent several months solving and studying published puzzles, finding what clues really appealed to me, and trying to analyze why. Only then did I submit my first puzzle.

What had I learned? What's "my secret"? Simply refusing to accept the old clues, almost always feeling I can come up with something new, hating to use "repeaters," and always trying to be as entertaining as possible. Those are my standards. As a result, I'm sure I spend a lot more time writing clues than most constructors do. I've often spent over a half hour on a single clue; I'm willing to do that any time I feel I'm close to coming up with something that I'll really like.

E.g., when preparing a puzzle for Will's annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, I needed to clue DPS. Any clue I'd use was sure to be boring, right? So just throw one in and get on with the rest. But I just had a feeling that I could do something fresh with DPS, and twenty minutes later I had it: "Out-and-out successes, briefly." Well worth the time it took, imo.

A better answer for you: I can boil down "my secret" to a single phrase, and there's no question what that phrase must be: word association. That's the cornerstone. I strongly advise all who aspire to write great clues to work at building the richest tapestry of words they can. Doing so should be a never-ending endeavor. Think about it: THE BEST CLUES BRING MULTIPLE IDEAS TOGETHER. That's what word association does.

A natural extension of such "tapestry weaving" is to try tying consecutive clues together. Clue "echoes." I've been working at that for a while now, and people have noticed. I do this a lot with my CrosSynergy puzzles; a number of my attempts get shot down by my CS peers as too stretchy, but I keep trying. It's FUN. And I firmly believe that the more one works at something, the better one gets.

Some of the sources I use most: RH2 (the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition), multiple thesauruses and rhyming dictionaries, "The Master Crossword Dictionary" by Herbert Baus, Google defines, plus every Web site I can find that facilitates word association.

What do I read? More and more of what I read is right there on the Web. And a good bit of that is triggered by the fact-checking I do, either at fact-checking time, or later, using the notes I've taken while fact-checking.

Besides constructing crosswords, what else do you do for fun?

Reading (surprise!), recreational programming, and spending time with my dear wife. Right now I'm reading "Planet Google" by Randall Stross, the fellow who writes the NYT's Digital Domain column. Fascinating stuff.


Dennis said...

Wow, what a great, insightful interview! One of the best yet. I really enjoy reading about how our constructors think and how they go about plying their trade.

I'm always commenting on the blog about 'fresh clues' and now I know why. I think we all appreciate the thought that Bob obviously puts into each clue to ensure its freshness.

I loved the 'clue echos' philosophy - a great way to put it.

I'm very much looking forward to his book in Jan/2010.

Another great job, C.C., and thanks to Bob for taking the time; it's really appreciated.

C. C. said...

Yeah, Bob Klahn's creativity in cluing is legendary. It has something to do with his background as well. You know, math in Princeton, then computer, Latin/French/German. I just adore his tie-in echoes.

I thought of your Navajo rug tiny flaw when I read Bob's "tapestry weaving".

Jeff said...

This is a great interview, CC. Thank you, Bob Klahn.

Anonymous said...

Bob: excellent interview. Do you prefer constructing themeless?

windhover said...

I think this should resolve once and for all the question about CC garnering repect for her efforts. Screw the psuedointellectuals. The people who matter, i.e, the Editor, the Constructors, the Cluer, and the people who come here every day are ample proof of her standing.
I usually do the puzzle right where I am
now, on the couch
with a cup of French Pressed coffee, but occasionally I
will work the puzzle in a public place. People invariably will comment. I always start my response with, " Well, there's this woman in Minnesota and this large group of people from all over the world, and every day.............
Thanks, CC.

Dick said...

Very interesting interview C.C. and thanks Bob.

lois said...

Great interveiw, CC and such an interesting 'tapestry weaving' approach Mr. Klahn has. And I agree, word association is the crux of the whole thing and what makes it fun. I appreciate his efforts. It's no wonder he's a success.

Well done, CC. And thanks to Mr. Klahn for sharing with us.

treefrog said...

I enjoyed the interview. Thanks.

Argyle said...

I have to ask, "Out-and-out successes, briefly." DPS?

JimmyB said...

I assumed he meant double plays (baseball)?

Clear Ayes said...

Bob Klahn reminds us of the absolute importance of cluing. The finished product can look lovely, the answers can be uncommon, but if the clues aren't interesting, then the puzzle isn't worth doing.

We all love the "Aha" moment. Thanks to Bob for taking the time to furnish plenty of those moments for us.

JD said...

No wonder this was a fun puzzle.Thanks CC and Mr. Klahn for taking the time to tell us about puzzling.We appreciate it, and we appreciate the puzzles that much more, knowing how much effort has been put into each one.Can't wait for that book!

Crockett1947 said...

And Now, The Rest of The Story ....

Thanks to Bob Klahn for the insight into the cluing process. Many of the other constructors we've had interview with have bemoaned the cluing process while Mr. Klahn embraces it. Difference in philosophy equals a difference in quality, IMHO.

And, thanks to the one and only C.C. for being the hostess with the mostest. What a community we have here!!

Lemonade714 said...

Wonderful insight, and once again a coup for our side; thank you both.

Argyle: Out (first runner is out) and Out (second runner is out) the DP (double Play)

Argyle said...

oooh, that is good!

Bob Klahn said...

Thank you all for your appreciative comments. Much appreciation right back at ya!

And to Anonymous: I enjoy constructing themed puzzles just as much as themlesses. The challenges are different, but they're just as much fun to overcome.

kazie said...

I only had time to read the interview today--and loved it. Word association and tapestry weaving are colorful ways to tackle the art of clueing. Thank you both, c.c. and Bob, for sharing with us.

Anonymous said...

@Bob, I am a fan. Thank you for a most informative interview. I'm looking forward to your book.


Anonymous said...

Bob Klahn, should check his clues, todays puzzle requested "Happy Days" hang out; his answers was Als. If I can remember correctly it was Arnolds. Maybe people wouldn't find his puzzles so hard if he got his facts straight.

Argyle said...

Once "Arnold" sold the drive-in to Al Delvecchio, it was refered to as "Al's".

Anonymous said...

I despise Klahn's clues. He is not clever, only deliberately obscure. Klahn, your puzzles are not fun.

bob fan said...

Klahn's puzzle are the best!! They ARE fun, that anon at 11:50 is so rude.

Does anyone here know what happened to Bob? I can't find him anywhere. It has been weeks since he appeared at the Washington Post. I hope some one sees this and I will check back for a reply. I miss his puzzles and thought maybe he retired. There was a page on the web with his crossword puzzles and now I can't find that either :(

Any help would be greatly appreciated

Thank you so much

Argyle said...

Hey, RC, it seems he is still at the Washington Post - Sunday, November 29th.

bob fan said...

Thanks for the reply, very nice of you. I knew of the one on Nov 29, I just find it odd that he hasn't had one since. There are such nasty letters to the editor at the Washington Post site that it makes me sick and sad. But thanks again and hopefully he will pop up one day.

May you have a very good new year sir


MLE said...

I too miss Bob Klahn's puzzles in the Post. What's happened to him?


Argyle said...

Bob Klahn's wife died recently.