Oct 9, 2009

Interview with Joe Krozel

How do you properly describe Joe Krozel's puzzles? Exciting!

Solving his puzzles is like watching Phil Mickelson pulling those incredible flop shots out of rough. You know he will take some risks, you know he will stun you, you know the ball will land inches away from the hole, if not in the hole.

Will Shortz, NY Times Crossword Editor, named Mr. Krozel's LIES puzzle as his favorite in 2008. The visual black squared L I E S and the lying theme clues are just awe-inspiring. My favorite is the baseball puzzle Mr. Krozel collaborated on with Peter Collins. What a beautiful and innovative diamond!

Like Patrick Berry, Mr. Krozel has never contributed to the LA Times. But he's such a prominent pioneering figure in the crossword world that I think we should know him. Enjoy the interview! I find his answers to be very informative and educational.

What is your background? How does it influence the imaginative and unconventional way you construct crosswords?

I have some experience with product research and development, but even before that I naturally questioned the validity of assumptions and conventional approaches to problems. I like taking software designed by other people and seeing what unusual things I can do with it. Some of my puzzles require me to use the crossword software and word list in unexpected ways. This will become even more apparent with my future puzzles. (All I want to add is that bloggers Ryan and Brian are starting to catch on to me when they note that my high-skill puzzles go hand in hand with my novelty puzzles).

Which is the most memorable puzzle you've made and why is it special to you?

All my puzzles have a great deal of meaning to me because they are so different from one another. (Well, mostly… I sometimes make two renditions of high-skill puzzles -- like the 19-block-count and the 58-word-count puzzles -- just to demonstrate that the first rendition wasn’t a fluke … and there will be more of that exposition forthcoming). But I hope the puzzles all get assembled together in published form one day. I think it’s more interesting to look at the entire set and think about the variety.

You've crafted 28 NY Times puzzle since you started in 2006. What has contributed to this productivity and where do you find your theme inspirations?

One thing that contributes to productivity is not being stifled. I don’t think I would have survived under a strict editor like Eugene Maleska; an editor’s risk-taking and receptiveness to ideas really fosters more of the same. I remember putting the LIES puzzle into the envelop to mail away and chuckling to my wife that it would never get accepted, but it was worth the postage just to show it to Will (Shortz). He published it, and it turned out to be one of his favorites – at least for 2008.

The sources of theme inspiration vary. Merl Reagle once remarked that he would be surprised to see any serious puzzle with 2-letter entries, so that inspired me to make both my state-postal-code puzzle and my compass puzzle. Also, one of Matt Ginsberg’s puzzles inspired me to produce something very similar. Even a solver’s description in the comment section of a blog inspired a new puzzle. (At least one of these last two puzzles will be published). Other times it’s just a matter of getting into the right mindset: The book “Bobby Fischer’s Outrageous Chess Moves” just gets my mind into that unconventional thinking mode.

What mistakes did you make when you first started constructing puzzles and what advice would you give to the budding constructors?

It took me a while to get up to speed because I was writing Excel spreadsheets to stack 15-letter entries when crossword software would have done it more efficiently. So, my advice to new constructors is to buy Crossword Compiler, subscribe to the Cruciverb website (and it’s database), and use the Cruciverb-L mail list to request a mentor – who will likely lend you a starter word list for you to adopt as your own; Focus on wordplay-based themes; Recognize that solvers like multi-word entries that are in-the-language; Use OneLook.com to help generate new entries.

Also, many beginners tend to use too many proper nouns in their construction (and clueing). It’s better to have a common word like PAPER rather than PAPAL in a puzzle. The former allows more wordplay type clues like: Rock beater. Solvers eventually figure out the wordplay, and they may actually enjoy being deceived for a short while.

Quite a few LA Times constructors mentioned in their interviews that they dislike cluing, how about you? What kind of resources/reference books do you use to ensure the accuracy/playfulness of your clues?

Clueing is really only a drag for the entries that allow very little playfulness… again proper nouns. So, I have to invent my own playfulness; I recently had trouble identifying a new famous person with the name DAN, so I punted and submitted the clue: Feyer of crossword solving fame. I pulled a similar stunt with CALEB (Young constructor Madison) and ORBACH (Tony of crossword constructing fame). Hopefully the editors find this sort of thing amusing … I don’t do it too often: I suppose there could be some serious repercussions if one of those clues accidentally made it into print.

What kind of puzzles do you solve every day and who are your favorite constructors?

I’m not a great solver because I have a terrible recall for [yet again] proper nouns, so I gravitate toward the late-week puzzles that have more of what I like in the clues: wordplay. I solved Sudoku for about a year until I completely figured it out and decided the realm of possibilities was finite. I occasionally play Minesweeper in my idle time because it involves reasoning mixed with pattern recognition; my best Expert level score is 73.3 seconds, though most days it’s closer to 90 seconds. But alas, I digress.

There are many amazing constructors out there, so I think I’d have to define “favorite” as those whose puzzles inspired my own. As you might guess, my frequent collaborator Pete Collins has inspired quite a bit of my work since we are in frequent contact. Pete once constructed a puzzle with a long bonus entry along the diagonal, and that inspired me to do the same in a subsequent collaboration. I like other constructors that produce novelty themes: Matt Ginsberg, John Farmer, Patrick Blindauer, Ashish Vengsarkar, Tim Wescott. (Also, Todd Gross constructed a FLIES puzzle as a spoof of my LIES puzzle). Those are more recent examples. I guess I’d add on all the constructors in “Will Shortz’s Favorite Crossword Puzzles” book.

Besides constructing crosswords, what are your other interests?

Let’s just stick with crosswords since I have more to say: Lately I’ve been digging into newspaper archives of the crossword craze of the mid-to-late 1920’s (thanks to some Cruciverb postings by Sergio Ximenes). I was fascinated by how the Brooklyn Daily Eagle invited readers to submit self-made crosswords from September 1924 through about June 1928, paid them $5 apiece, and printed their name below their puzzles. I love researching the way those puzzles evolved to the point where some constructors could produce 78-word puzzles in which the shortest entries were just three letters long; one constructor even produced a pangram. (Margaret [Petherbridge] Farrar was involved in crossword editing elsewhere at that time, but I don’t know that she ever kept any records about constructors from that era). It’s just too bad that the notion of including the constructor byline didn’t catch on permanently back then.

Fast forward to 2009: most puzzles now have the constructor and editor’s names on them, and I for one can’t stand solving any puzzle that doesn’t have that information on it. I just wish we could go back and identify the constructors of all the innovative puzzles of the past.

Note from C.C.: A special Thanks to Jim Horne of Wordplay for his wonderful database.

20 comments:

Dennis said...

Wow, what a great interview! Talk about someone thinking outside the box. I enjoyed his 'baseball' and 'lies' puzzles as much as any I've ever done. I take it there isn't yet a 'collection' published?

Also, I never gave much thought to the early days of crosswords/constructing; this was most educational. C.C., as always, great, great job, and Joe, thanks so much for taking the time - this was truly a wonderful interview.

Anonymous said...

I hate, hate, hate Sudoku. Thanks Joe, what a great interview. Well done.

Lemonade714 said...

Yes, a most fascinating man, and I would love to read all about the puzzles that were submitted in the 20's/ C.C., you do GREAT work to entertain us. Thank you.

Carl said...

This is a terrific interview, Joe and C.C., thank you both for doing it.

Anonymous said...

Very enlightening interview. Thanks, Joe.

Anonymous said...

A most informative interview, Joe, but why do we see your name in NY Times only?

Michelle said...

Good Job Joey,

You're the smartest brother-in-law I've ever had!

Bill G. said...

Questions for anybody. Why is it that Joe Krozel's puzzles have not been in the LA Times? Why do Dan Naddor's puzzles not show up on the United Syndicate? Is it just that constructors have their favorite editors and vice versa? Or is there some rule about appearing on more than one site? There doesn't seem to be much overlap.

Jerome said...

Bill- Most constructors will send their puzzles to the New York Times first because there's a perception that it's the "Cadillac" of publications. Plus, they pay the most. More than double what others pay. Just like the Yankees, I might add. If your puzzle isn't acceted you're still going to want a shot at a sale. So, you send it elsewhere. Both Dan and Joe are a little unusual in their approach. I believe Joe only sends to the NYT, and Dan, until recently, only the LAT.

I think it was Elizabeth Gorski who had 4 puzzles published on the same day in 4 different publications! That's a near impossibility.

C. C. said...

Anonymous @9:52,
The above Bill G & Jerome posts (copies from yesterday's puzzle Comments section) would not answer your question, but I think they might be of interest to you.

Joe Krozel said...

Bill G. left a nice comment/question that warrants a response. He asks why my puzzles have not been in the L.A. Times. Jerome's answer is mostly correct: (some) constructors get used to a particular editor, so I will usually rework a puzzle idea for Will (NYT) rather than send a rejected --and possibly flawed-- puzzle elsewhere. But on one or two occasions, Pete Collins and I really liked a puzzle that NYT rejected, so we submitted it to LAT and it got rejected there too... I think because it broke a puzzle rule. Alas, maybe one day you'll see my name on an LAT puzzle. (As long as the byline is there, constructors are assured to get name exposure).

MJ said...

C.C.--Thank you for yet another fine interview.

Mr. Krozel--Thank you for taking the time to respond to C.C.'s questions. It's helpful to hear from constructors directly. Incidently, while waiting in the Denver airport yesterday, I picked up a copy of The Denver Post which carries the NYT Crossword. There were no names for constructor or editor. It turns out that it was your "19-block count" puzzle which I discovered through this interview.

C. C. said...

Joe Krozel,
I look forward to your byline in LA Times.

MJ,
What a coincidence. Joe has another 19-block that I failed to link yesterday. Good to see you back!

Joe Krozel said...

M.J., you are correct; Friday's puzzle was my 19-block NYT puzzle of Sept 4, 2009 (which appears in syndicated local papers with a six week delay). The decision to include editor and constructor names comes down to the copy editor [or a page layout person?]at the local paper. We constructors have gotten on their backs from time to time, but it seems to be a never-ending battle. At least the byline is included during first run and at many other local venues.

Anonymous said...

Joe is truly gifted. They should give him a MacArthur grant to fully develop his talents. Great interview.

Sergio Ximenes said...

I am the Cruciverb member mentioned by Joe.

If you like crossword history, there's my online work written in Portuguese: more than 370 pages and 3.900 images, from 1350 B.C. (Ancient Egypt) to 1914: http://tinyurl.com/yz83zxw

The second part of my History of the Crossword Puzzle (a work in progress) shows images from 1924 on: http://tinyurl.com/yz3xpfz

In this part you can see some of those early puzzles and grids created by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle readers: http://tinyurl.com/ygqmsjw

Joe Krozel said...

For those of you who visit Sergio's crossword history website http://tinyurl.com/yz3xpfz my recommendation is to visit page 10 for actual examples of those Brooklyn Daily Eagle puzzles from 1924-8. (There are many many more in the newspaper archives, but that website provides a good sampling).

Michelle R said...

Great interview Joe! I agree with Michelle, you are the smartest brother-in-law!

Karen G. said...

Ah Joe- I always knew that one day you'd put all those many many hours and days spent indoors (when we were kids) with your nose buried in dictionaries and encyclopedias to good use. Congrats!

carolina said...

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Cheers