Sep 3, 2009

Interview with Daniel A. Finan

It's been a long time since we last had Dan Finan's puzzle. I really liked his "IT'S NOT YOU. IT'S ME" puzzle (April 17, 2009). Dan changed every ME in the theme entry into U. He later told me that he's a big "Seinfeld" fan, and he thought it would be fun to play with the breakup phrase.

Dan made his NY Time debut earlier this year with a Sunday "When in Rome" puzzle. Those who solve NY Times regularly probably still remember his inventive sailboat puzzle in April. When you connect those circled letters in alphabetical order, a sailboat takes shape.

In addition to LA Times and NY Times, Dan also had several puzzles published by the NY Sun. Enjoy the interview. I am confident that we will see more Dan Finan puzzles in the future.

Can you tell us more about the creating process of this puzzle? How did the theme idea come to you and what kind of changes did you make to smooth out the grid?

In order for the PARTS OF SPEECH puzzle to work, I figured I needed to take three-letter "parts" of SPEECH, i.e., SPE, PEE, EEC, and ECH. That would result in four theme answers (not including the central entry), each of which is workable but not too commonplace. I wanted to narrow down the possible answers even more, so I decided to place all of these parts at the beginning of the theme entries. And finally, for the sake of elegance, I wanted them to appear in order.

There is often a limiting factor of a puzzle that a constructor is forced to build around. For this puzzle it was the EEC answer. The only quality entry I could think of was EE CUMMINGS, a well-known author. Thus, given my other self-imposed constraints, I needed another 10-letter entry starting with PEE to offset this answer. There were a few to choose from, but I opted for PEEPING TOM, which is a colloquial English expression deriving from an interesting historical figure. Similarly, there were limited options for the ECH answer, but I thought ECHO CHAMBER had a nice ring to it. Finally, I thought that the offsetting entry SPELLING BEE would be fun to clue.

My favorite non-theme entries are PLETHORA (a great word; it reminds me of the classic "Three Amigos") and CLARK BAR (candy-related entries are always fun, right?). Also, I wanted to clue the common OMELET as "Denver ___" because I like to slip in as many references to my hometown as possible!

How would you describe your style? What kind of themes/fills fascinate you? And what words do you try to avoid in your puzzles?

I am a sucker for the gimmick puzzles--typically late-week themed puzzles. Off the top of my head, two puzzles that had a fun wow factor for me were Don Gagliardo's LAT 5/17/07 and Patrick Berry's NYT 3/9/08 "Splits and Mergers." I also love a good connect-the-dots puzzle.

Like any constructor, I try to avoid crosswordese as much as possible when filling grids. But I really like my long non-theme entries to be lively and fun; I'll gladly use a few dullish short answers if it means I can use a fun long one.

What is a perfect puzzle to you? And what's your view on low word/black square count?

To me the perfect puzzle is a simple, elegant, and subtle gimmick puzzle. I really like the crosswords that have a metapuzzle. For example, with some (themed) puzzles, I can fill in the entire grid, and I still don't "get it." So I have to really dig deep to find the theme... it's then that I get that satisfying "Aha!" moment. I wonder how many people miss the whole point of subtle puzzles like that.

I don't care so much about achieving a low word or black-square count. On the other hand, I really try to use cheater squares only when I absolutely have to!

Do you google a lot while constructing a puzzle? What kind of reference books do you use?

I definitely use google when constructing. And wiki. But wisely! They can be very useful tools. Sometimes, after I've resigned myself to using a seemingly ho-hum entry, I'll google it and find something interesting about it that I didn't know before. I regularly use other online resources like IMDB, OneLook, and a few dictionaries.

What's your background and what do you do for fun?

I recently finished grad school at UC Santa Barbara, and I'm now doing a postdoc at a university in Copenhagen, Denmark. My area of research is diabetes. I'm trying to figure out the Danish crosswords, which is a daunting task. I have the utmost respect for non-native solvers (C.C.!). Other than that, I love photography and I've been traveling a lot lately.


Dennis said...

Wow, I remember that 'sailboat' puzzle - a friend sent it to me, said it was one of the cleverest puzzles he'd seen.

I really enjoyed this interview - seems like we share a few preferences. I'm also a fan of gimmick puzzles and long non-theme answers. And I like having to really think to come up with the theme, as happened today. (Even though I didn't catch it)

Great interview; thanks, Dan, for taking the time.

Hahtool said...

Great interview. Plethora is a favorite word of mine, too. Great puzzle!

Anonymous said...

Terrific interview. Thanks, Dan, for taking the time. What is Metapuzzle?

Lemonade714 said...

When does someone in grad school have time to construct puzzles? Very impressive.

Crockett1947 said...

Great interview, Dan and C.C. I think you've hit that elegant benchmark in this puzzle. I thought about the overarching clue and tried to apply it to the first two theme answers, and came up blank. When I got the third theme, I mused for a while and then had my AHA. The first three letters of the fourth theme were gimmes then.

Thanks for the fun and a quality puzzle!

Ang Lee Fan said...

Excellent interview. My favorite Thursday puzzle.

MJ said...

Thank you so much for sharing with us. It is helpful to see how constuctors think as they come up with and then develop a theme. I thoroughly enjoyed today's puzzle!

Great job again, C.C.

KQ said...

Wow, fun interview. I remember the sailboat puzzle too. I like a theme that is a little harder to get, but not so hard that you miss it completely. I certainly enjoyed your puzzle.

Your being in grad school makes me wonder how old you are. I am guessing on the younger side. I like to see our younger generation enjoying puzzling as much as we do.

kazie said...

Very interesting interview. Thank you both, c.c. and Dan. I really liked the puzzle today, and seeing a little of what went into its making made it all the more enjoyable in retrospect.

I'm also wondering about the age of one who has time for this pursuit in grad school!

embien said...

Thanks for the great interview. I, too, remember with fondness the "sailboat" and "It's not you it's me" puzzles.

Put me solidly in the camp of those who like the sizzling theme fill. I care not one whit about black squares or word count (things which seem to be obsessions with some). I will occasionally comment when I notice "cheater" squares, but it's not a priority for me. Theme! Theme! Theme!

PJB-Chicago said...

C.C., Nicely done! Great questions and answers. The one job I would most like to steal is Charlie Rose's. When he goes head to head with some of the finest minds in many fields, he (like you) asks the questions that too often go unspoken, things that other people ponder but don't say aloud. Dan has a passion for words and puzzles and that comes through in his responses.

C.C., you have at least two books in you, IMHO. One is your dialogue with constructors. The other is the fascinating story of how an incredibly smart lady from Xi'an came to puzzles and knows so much about American culture and language--so miuch more than a great many of us who were born here. Think about it! :-@

One thing I often wonder is if constructors are able to enjoy solving other people's puzzles. My completely unplanned stint in comedy has made me a greater fan of really good comedians, because I have a small taste of how hard it is to build/perform something funny. Jerome notices things that I would never spot, for instance. Just a thought!
Too wordy here, sorry.

C. C. said...

KQ & Kazie,
I am guessing Dan is 28.

Anonymous @ 5:52am,
I don't know how to explain, but here is Wikipedia's explanation on Metapuzzle.

You've always been so kind to me. Thank you so much. I totally agree with you on how it takes a constructor to really appreciate the work of another constructor. I am sure we've missed a lot of subtlety, humor and wordplay intended by the constructors/editor.

C. C. said...

Maybe you should take Einstein's advice and sleep 10 hours a day? Others all got the theme.

Me too. Theme! Theme! Theme!

Hahtool et al,
I am glad you all enjoyed the interview.

Anonymous said...

Harpo was "silent" because he never spoke in the movies, he only honked his horn.

Justin said...

Dan's first published crossword was in a little Colorado Snowboarding magazine. I can tell you all that this is the smartest guy I have ever met. His genious is only rivaled by his "CAPS" partner, the ultra sexy beast Justin.