Aug 19, 2009

Interview with Samuel A. Donaldson

When publicly called a "has-been" by President Bush during a news briefing several years ago, ABC's Sam A. Donaldson retorted: "Better to have been a has-been than a never was."

But the future belongs to another Samuel A. Donaldson, our crossword constructor today. He is a professor at the University of Washington, and a lawyer.

Mr. Donaldson burst into the crossword scene on Oct 2, 2008 when he made the debut with NY Times. Since then, he has been published by NY Sun, Chronicle of High Education, USA Today & LA Times.

I read this interview after I am done with today's CLOSING ACTS puzzle, and found his behind-the-scene creating process insightful and his take on potential groaners fascinating. Alas, most of his proud multiple-words gave me troubles today.

We'd better learn quickly how his mind works. He seems to have been struck by a Muse and is very inspired. I expect we will see more of his puzzles in the future.

What is the inspiration for this puzzle? What are the other theme answers that failed to make the cut?

I’m not sure what got me thinking about a puzzle featuring celebrities with one name. I suppose it might have come to me while watching “The Soup” or reading Entertainment Weekly, but I think I’m supposed to be ashamed to admit that. Anyway, in researching names I realized that the population of mononymous celebrities is dominated by singers. So I narrowed the theme to phrases ending with the name of a singer. I liked the idea because it gave me a lot of options to play with—some of my favorites left on the cutting room floor include JELLYFISH STING and APPLE BRANDY.

I went through a lot of drafts before submitting the puzzle to Rich Norris. The version I submitted had a fun title (“Closing Acts”) but a weak payoff entry: the word SINGERS appeared in the grid’s center with the clue “People found at the ends of 17-, 53-,….” Of course, the problem is that the LA Times puzzle runs without a title, so Rich suggested re-working the grid to make CLOSING ACTS the payoff entry. That forced me to change some of the theme entries, but it all worked out. I like that the final version has a balance of men and women and a little variety in musical styles. Although this is my second LA Times puzzle in print, it was the first one to be accepted by Rich, so I was especially delighted when I got the good news.

What are your favorite fills in this grid? Which one(s) do you think might raise a few eyebrows among the solvers?

I think this particular grid demonstrates three things I try to incorporate in my puzzles because I like them as a solver: (1) multiple-word nontheme entries (I like that I was able to get nine of them into the grid); (2) nontheme entries that are related, (here, APOLOGY and I’M SORRY); (3) scrabbly fill (it’s not always easy getting three Zs to coexist in one grid).

Still, I don’t pretend that the grid is perfectly smooth. I’m a little worried that some solvers will get stuck in the corners of this grid. Like many constructors, I save the corners for last when building the grid—it’s just easier to paint from the center out than from the corners in, because with the latter approach you’ll get stuck way too many times. In this particular case, I think the corners have harder entries. Newer solvers might get flummoxed by SCENA and ICI in the northwest, MALAWI in the northeast, ZIA and ESL in the southwest, and OZARK in the southeast. And I’ll bet $1 that AESIR gets more than a handful of “Huh?”s on your blog.

Abbreviations and partials don’t bother me one bit as a solver, but I know some find them dreadful. So I suspect some of your readers might not like that there are nine abbreviations in this grid, but I’m only mildly embarrassed about one of them (STK). Others will dislike the partials (FLIP A and A VIEW), but I like them as a solver because they often give me a toehold into the grid. If they’re good enough for Merl Reagle they’re good enough for me.

What is your background? How did you get into crossword construction?

I’m a law professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. Most of my teaching and research is in the field of taxation. Lots of people think it’s a mind-numbing discipline, but I firmly believe that if you enjoy word games and logic puzzles you would be surprised how fun (yes, fun) tax law really is. It’s less about numbers and more about language.

For my 40th birthday, I treated myself by attending the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Anyone who enjoys crosswords and wordplay in general should add the ACPT to his or her bucket list—it’s an amazing weekend. The best part, hands down, is the people—everyone is pleasant and welcoming. It was especially fun to meet some of the constructors whose puzzles I have often enjoyed. When I mentioned to some of them that I had thought about making my own crossword, they all encouraged me to give it a go. So I read up on the subject, devoured all the information available at the Cruciverb website, purchased the Crossword Compiler software, and I was off to the races.

Well, not really. My first several submissions stunk. I didn’t think so then, but looking back at them now I see how flawed they were. They were all (rightly) rejected, but every time the editors took the time to explain—politely—why they didn’t cut the mustard. No one ever told me to stop sending puzzles, so I kept trying. Each one got a little better, and eventually I got my first one accepted. I’m to the point now where I get a decent number of acceptances, but there are still many that miss the cut. Rejections are, for most of us I think, a part of the gig. Editors at the major syndicates like the LA Times receive lots of submissions, and with some puzzle outlets folding it appears the competition is only getting stiffer. So sometimes a puzzle can be fine but still get rejected just because it’s not as stellar as the others.

I mention all of this because I hope it motivates those who have thought about constructing a crossword to give it a try. It ain’t easy, but if you follow the advice of editors and established constructors, one day you’ll break through. It’s fun to see your name in the paper (especially when it’s not in the obituaries or police reports).

As a solver, what kind of puzzles give you the "Wow"? Who are your favorite constructors?

My favorite crosswords do something unexpected or have a layer to them that I might miss if I am not careful. Without giving away the gimmick, I’ll point you to Patrick Berry’s Wall Street Journal crossword from June 19, 2009, as an example. In general, my favorites are the weekend themeless puzzles because they really make me work for the payoff and because, generally, the entries are fresher and peppier.

I am a fan of lots of constructors. Off the top of my head, I can tell you that I smile when see these bylines, either because I know I’m in for a fun solve or because it just seems that I can find that constructor’s wavelength: Patrick Berry, Paula Gamache, Joe Krozel, Caleb Madison, Manny Nosowsky, Trip Payne, Doug Peterson, Merl Reagle, Barry C. Silk, Karen M. Tracey, and Byron Walden. But honestly, there are so many really talented constructors out there; it’s a golden age for crosswords!

What would people find one thing that's most surprising about you?

I have never played a game of Scrabble in my life.


Argyle said...

never played Scrabble
I am surprised. How old were you when you started solving crosswords?

Anonymous said...

Excellent interview, Sam. Always enjoying reading more about crossword constructors.


Dennis said...

Great interview, and one that reinforces what seems to be a constant theme in all these interviews: the crossword constructor community is a very encouraging and mentoring one. It's good to hear that there's not the back-biting so prevalent in other fields.

Thanks, Sam, for your time, and C.C., as always, superb interview.

Crockett1947 said...

Great interview! Nice to hear again what a nice group solvers and constructors can be. No Scrabble history?! Try Bananagrams, much quicker and a lot of fun, IMO.

Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this interview, lots of insightful information. Thanks to both of you for giving us another glimpse at the puzzle making.


WM said...

Terrific interview and the insight is alsways welcome.

Oddly, when I showed the puzzle to my husband, he mentioned that he had taken accounting classes at SJSU from a proffessor Samuel Donaldson...a father maybe?

C.C. and Mr. Donaldson, thank you for a terrific interview.

Alexander said...
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