, pub-2774194725043577, DIRECT, f08c47fec0942fa0 L.A.Times Crossword Corner: Interview with Donna S. Levin


Sep 9, 2009

Interview with Donna S. Levin

Today is our 6th Donna S. Levin puzzle since the TMS switch. But it's Donna's 69th LAT starting August 2005.

Donna (She is very beautiful) specializes in early-to-midweek puzzles. She has created several excellent tribute puzzles this year: "The Wizard of Oz" & Wimbledon for LA Times; 40th Anniversary Moon Landing & Bastille Day for NT Times.

Her puzzles also appeared in NY Sun. She contributes regularly to Stan Newman's Newsday & CroSynergy/Washington Post. Enjoy the interview.

What inspired this puzzle? What are the other theme entries you considered but failed to make the cut?

The answer to your first question is pretty darned embarrassing, I confess. I’ve been pining for a dog ever since my husband and I moved to Florida in 2000, but alas, we live in a building that doesn’t allow pets. Since I’ve been suffering from dog-lust for the past nine years, there’s been a long-running inside joke between the two of us: when he does something nice for me (which is often, I’m glad to say), I pat him on the head and say “Good boy!” From that evolved this puzzle.

Once I realized that there were enough doggy-commands to form the basis of a puzzle, I just started playing with the possibilities. The potential entries that didn’t make the cut were:


Those entries wound up in the shredder because either the length was wrong, the cluing would have been contrived, the gridding would have been difficult, or (as in the case of BEG) I just didn’t think it was nice to ask the dog to be so undignified!

Which fills do you think will get "huh?" from the solvers and which ones do you expect to elicit a "wow" reaction?

I’m a little concerned about CAPE ANN. As an East Coast gal who lived in New England for seven years, I know it -- but I’m not so sure it’s familiar to folks on the other side of the country. I’m mindful of the foofaraw caused by a constructor’s use of NATICK in a New York Times puzzle not too long ago, and I don’t want to be the cause of so many solvers’ getting in a pet. (I’ve always wanted to use the phrase “in a pet” in a sentence, having learned it from crosswords. Finally, I’ve managed to do it. Hooray!)

I don’t believe there’s anything that will elicit a “Wow!” in this one. I’m satisfied if I can prompt a simple smile and a feeling of satisfaction upon completion.

How would you describe your style? You seem to be fond of the tribute puzzles.

My puzzles are generally pretty straightforward, as I aim for the early-to-midweek audience. I am in awe of the constructors who can do snazzy rebuses or themelesses with stacks of 15’s; that’s not me, I’m afraid. Maybe someday, but not yet.

My fondness for tribute puzzles stems from a lack of imagination. When I first started constructing, the themes flowed easily … but after 4-1/2 years, the well is beginning to run dry. If there’s an anniversary of a significant event -- Martin Luther King Day, the finale of TV’s M*A*S*H, the premiere of “The Wizard of Oz,” the conquering of Mount Everest, the storming of the Bastille -- it provides a good starting point for brainstorming potential puzzles.

What is a perfect puzzle to you? Who are your favorite constructors?

For me, a perfect puzzle is one that, after I’ve finished it, I’m proud of myself for having done so. It’s one that makes me think hard, but that doesn’t send me to Google searching for some silly piece of trivia that no normal person could possibly know. I want a fair test of my cultural literacy.

I’m impressed by the work of so many constructors, far too numerous to name. If I had to single out just a few, I’d cite Manny Nosowsky, for his elegant, seemingly effortless themeless puzzles; Patrick Blindauer, for his oh-so-clever themes; and Bob Klahn, for his fresh, witty clues.

What is your background and what prompted you to make your first crossword?

I’m a happily retired attorney -- emphasis on the “happily.” Way back in the day, when I was going to law school, I could often be found in the law library … but never with a law book. Instead, I’d have Xeroxed the crossword page from the library’s newspaper (on a student’s budget, it was too expensive actually to buy a copy of a New York or Los Angeles paper in Massachusetts), and I’d be concentrating on doing the puzzle rather than my coursework.

I’d enjoyed solving puzzles over the years, but never gave any thought to how they were constructed until December 2004, when my husband and I gave my parents a gift in honor of their 50th wedding anniversary: passage for two on Stan Newman’s “Crossword Cruise,” since my dad had been a crossword aficionado his whole life. My folks inveigled us to join them on the cruise. Although competitive (timed) solving of crosswords left me cold (it felt too much like taking the SAT’s), Stan’s seminar on how to construct a puzzle fascinated me, and the rest is history. Luckily, I had wonderful mentors from the beginning: Myles Callum answered my cyberpost seeking an experienced eye to look over my first puzzle, and then Nancy Salomon took me under her wing, as she has so many aspiring constructors. Rich Norris was an absolute gem, too, giving me encouraging words and the hope that I just might be able to make a go of it if I stuck with it. I’m eternally grateful to all three of them.


Dennis said...

"I want a fair test of my cultural literacy."

I think that one sentence sums up the reason most of us do puzzles. Very well put.

I really enjoy seeing how our constructors got into their craft, and a 'crossword cruise' is certainly one of the most interesting. And again, we see Nancy Salomon taking someone else under her wing; she must be extremely magnanimous.

Another great interview; thanks to both of you, and definitely thanks for the picture of Donna; a real beauty.

Hahtoolah said...

Great interview, CC. I loved this puzzle and a fun theme, Donna. And, while Cape Ann wasn't the first Massachusetts peninsula I thought of, it isn't so obscure that I couldn't figure it out.

Lemonade714 said...

Ah, the world is filled with ex-lawyers, it is good to see one doing something noble by constructing puzzles. Thank you Donna.

PJB-Chicago said...

C. C.:
A fascinating interview with a charming, smart lady. I too loved her Puzzle Cruise story & definition of the perfect puzzle. Thanks to both of you for a peek into the constructor's art. Nancy Salamon and Rich Norris come up again as people dedicated to helping bring out the best in puzzleland!

kazie said...

Very enjoyable interview, thank you both.

Your cultural literacy quote does it all for me--that's what I love to test and succeed at in doing puzzles. Trivia is of no interest, so your style suits me well. My hardest clue was not for Cape Ann--we've had it before, but Saks. Since I've never been to New York city, I had no idea what the equivalent of Bloomingdales would be.

JD said...

another fabulous interview!

Donna, I definitely got the feeling of satisfaction upon finishing this morning..loved your theme and the story.I'm a CA girl, but when C. Cod didn't work, Cape Ann was 2nd choice.I am so impressed with the comraderie among constructors.

Clear Ayes said...

It is fascinating how different constructors can take the same 15 X 15 basic layout and come up with different patterns, themes and fills, time after time.

Donna, your "fair test" quote was an excellent explanation of why we keep being drawn back day after day.

Personally, I like a lot of people and place names, but other solvers find them annoying. I don't care for a lot of foreign words, but others are happy to see them. It is interesting that cultural literacy for some, is trivia for others, and vice versa.

Thank you to Donna and C.C. for another peek into the construction process.

MJ said...

Thank you, C.C., for another insightful interview.

Donna, I believe you met your goal with this puzzle. Thank you for taking the time to share with us. I finished with a sense of satisfaction, having smiled along the way.

Chickie said...

A great interview. Thank you C.C. and Donna. Also, thank you for the picture of Donna. .

Donna, your "cultural literacy" statement says it all.

I live on the West Coast and Cape Ann was not my first thought, but not totally obscure.

Since we are a "dog" family from way back, your clues today brought a smile to my face. All of those terms have been used countless times in our household.