Jan 25, 2010

Interview with Peter Gordon

Several LA Times crossword constructors and hardcore solvers have mentioned on our blog the superior quality & incredible inventiveness of the NY Sun puzzles, arguably the best in the country while the paper existed (2002-2008).

The man behind all the innovation and brilliance is Peter Gordon (the taller one. Merl Reagle is to his right), who challenged and actually caused improvement of the overall puzzle quality and payment to constructors of the NY Times during his editorship at the NY Sun. Mr. Gordon is also a very accomplished constructor. He has had 76 puzzles published by the NY Times alone since 1993, not to mention all the great puzzles he constructed under the pseudonym Ogden Porter at the NY Sun.

Additionally, he's a remarkable crossword solver, and a two-time division winner at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Enjoy this refreshing & informative interview; I thoroughly did.

Can you tell us a bit more of the Fireball Crosswords you've just launched? Why all themeless? Do you have a specific target solvers in mind?

Fireball Crosswords are weekly puzzles that are e-mailed directly to you. It's $10 to subscribe ($10.61 if you pay by PayPal) for 50 puzzles. Subscription info is at www.FireballCrosswords.com. You can also pay an extra $30 and request a specific answer to appear sometime during the year, or an extra $60 to have your answer at 1-Across. I've gotten quite a few of these requests, surprisingly.

They're not all themelesses, but probably more than 40 will be. This way I'll do a theme if I get a good idea, but if I don't, then I can just do a themeless. My target solver is someone who can't get enough high-quality, tough puzzles online. There are plenty of easy puzzles available, but not too many hard ones. These should be a nice challenge even for an experienced solver.

What is a typical day like for you as an editor for Sterling Publishing? And what are your major responsibilities there?

I am responsible for overseeing all the puzzle and game books that Sterling publishes, now under the Puzzlewright Press imprint. There's no typical day, but in any day I might do some of these:

* Edit a manuscript and make a book out of it
* Test-solve a puzzle book
* Look through manuscripts submitted by authors
* Meet with the art department to discuss covers
* Work on the layout of a puzzle book
* Check over a book-in-progress from the other puzzle editors there, Francis Heaney and Patrick Blindauer
* Analyze sales numbers to see what's selling well and what isn't
* Come up with a way to repackage old material in a new format
* Think up titles for books
* Find authors for books we need written
* Answer e-mails from authors who are working on books
* Negotiate with authors on contract terms for books
* Try to make licensing deals with organizations whose logos we want to put on our books
* Look over proofs of back covers, covers, inside pages, etc.

Which one is more fun, creating a puzzle yourself or editing others' grids? And how do you describe your own editing style?

I prefer creating a puzzle myself. I don't want to edit others' grids. I do it only to remove something I don't like. I'd love it if I got grids with only great entries and nothing I disliked, but there's a lot that I don't like, so I often changed grids. I think that words that are seen only in crosswords (ESNE, SNEE, etc.), partials, unfamiliar abbreviations and the like shouldn't be used unless necessary. So if I saw something I didn't like, I'd try to get rid of it. Sometimes I couldn't, and I'd live with it. But surprisingly often it was possible to redo an area and get rid of something I didn't like. When I see a simple corner with two partials and a lousy entry, that says to me that the constructor didn't try hard enough. I spent way too much time editing the Sun puzzles. But I wanted them to be good, and that took time. Also, I tried to avoid repeating clues. In one calendar year I had fewer than 10 repeats. It meant that I'd have to spend a little more time on each clue coming up with something new and interesting, but often it would be a nice new clue, so it was worth the effort.

What kind of theme/fill attract you? And what kind of entries do you try to avoid in your puzzles?

I like themes that have never been done before. So when I got ones where it was four phrases that started with words that could follow the last Across word in the grid, I'd send a form rejection. I've seen that one too many times. And the add-a-letter-or-two-or-three or subtract-a-letter-or-two-or-three is also overdone, but at least there you can have some fun. So I'd run those occasionally, but I got so many of those themes I could have run one every day. Like I said above, I try to avoid things that you know only from crosswords. NENE is a good example. Sure, it's the state bird of Hawaii. But you probably know that only from crosswords. Can you name Hawaii's state tree? If not, why should you be required to know its state bird? (The state tree is the KUKUI.) I have no problem with words like ARIA and OREO. They show up a lot more in crosswords than in real life, but they're perfectly familiar words outside of crosswords, and I don't understand why anyone complains about them.

Where do you normally find your crossword construction muse? And what kind of newspaper/books/magazines/website do you read for inspiration?

The muse can come from anywhere. I might read or hear a phrase and get inspired. I have dozens of little scraps of paper with theme ideas jotted on them. And sometimes the ideas sit around for years before I can come up with enough other entries to make a theme. I write a current events crossword for The Week every week (http://www.theweek.com/puzzle), so I have to pay attention to the news. I read The Week every week, which I get as soon as they go to press so I know what will be in the next issue when I write the puzzle. I've read The New York Times every day since around 1991 (except for when I was on my honeymoon), and I read the comics in Newsday regularly. With a full-time job, plus The Week, plus Fireball, I don't have much time for books, but when I do read, it's usually nonfiction. I watch very little TV (well under two hours a week). I check out the crossword blogs when I have a puzzle, but most of my web surfing is for news.

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

I solve the Times every day. I do Matt Gaffney's puzzle each week. I like the meta-puzzle aspect. I definitely will be doing the new variety cryptics in the Wall Street Journal. I'm almost done solving "Atlantic Cryptic Crosswords" so I'm glad to have more to keep my variety cryptic crossword fix filled. I don't regularly solve the L.A. Times or CrosSynergy, but I see them when we make books out of them. I look at the Newsday answer grid every day after reading the comics. And I'll peek at others now and then, including the Onion, Quigley, Wall Street Journal, Reagle, Chronicle of Higher Education, Tausig, Boston Globe, etc. Each month I download them all and I have enough to keep me busy for hundreds of hours if I ever have the time.

Besides having SUDOKU on your license plate, what are the other surprising things people might find about you?

After college, I went to the Joe Brinkman Umpire School in Cocoa, Florida. It was a five-week program for people who wanted to be professional umpires. I didn't make it to the minor leagues (only about 15% of the class does), but I umped for several summers in Brooklyn, and may well do it again sometime.

Also, I collect postcards that say "Greetings from" on them. I have more than 8,000.


Dennis said...

You know, it seems to be a common thread among our constructors that their days are pretty full. Peter just raised the bar. I got tired just reading about his daily routine.

A great, great interview; extremely informative and again, insight into how constructors get their ideas. Thanks to both Peter and C.C. for an outstanding read.

Oh, and I just signed up for the Fireball puzzles; looking forward to the challenge.

C. C. said...

Superb! Those tough puzzles should delight advanced solvers like you.
In his first Fireball, there's an extremely clever clue: "Tours with" (4 letter). What's the answer?

windhover said...



C. C. said...

Bravo Zulu!

Lemonade714 said...

Very fun interview and Windhover, you are just too good!

Clear Ayes said...

Great interview as usual C.C. I really liked Peter Gordon's take on keeping those strictly crosswordese entries and unfamiliar abbreviations to a minimum.

Dennis will have to be our bellweather for the Fireball puzzles and let us know if the more average solvers around here might attempt them (without too much frustration).

Windhover, Très bien, mon ami.

MJ said...

C.C.-Thank you for continuing to bring us insightful interviews with talented constructors.

Peter Gordon-Thank you for taking the time to share. I appreciate learning about what inspires and motivates oft published constructors.

Anonymous said...

@CC - the same Fireball puzzle, [Side dish?] for ARM CANDY. Peter Gordon rocks!

JD said...

Another great interview,CC.Each one gives us a little more insight into the world of a cruciverbalist.I'm so glad Peter does not like using unfamiliar abbreviations, although I see that it's necessary at times.

Kudos Windhover!

Anonymous said...

Rich Norris has too many add-a-letter or subtract-a-letter puzzles.

Dennis said...

Windhover, nice pickup; I never would've seen that. I like the 'side dish/arm candy' one too -- extremely clever.

anon@1:37, these posts are in reference to the interview with Peter Gordon. If you have a problem with Rich Norris' methodology, you should let him know directly; he's not gonna see it here.

Anonymous said...

Ah, This is spot on! Puts to bed
many misnomers I've seen