Jan 18, 2010

Interview with Stella Daily

Like Tyler Hinman, Trip Payne and our LA Times constructor Doug Peterson, Stella Daily is one of those few top-notch speed solvers who have regularly constructed puzzles for various major newspapers.

Since April 2002, Stella has had over 90 puzzles published by LA Times alone, 89 of them are collaborations with Bruce Venzke. Together they've also made 14 puzzles for the NY Times. Stella's puzzles also appeared in the NY Sun, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, etc.

We've solved four of their puzzles since the switch last March. Stella just told me that she's quitting constructing. I decided to run this interview as a special since we might not see another Daily/Venzke byline again. They've stopped submitting to LAT as a team several months ago.

What is your background and how did you develop an interest in crossword construction?

I have both a scientific and a writing background -- I studied chemistry in college (and, in fact, my first published puzzle, which ran in the LA Times, had a chemistry theme) but I've always loved to write, and eventually I discovered medical advertising, which is a marriage of both science and writing. I've solved crosswords since I was a junior in college. I attended my first tournament in 2001, when I was living not too far from Stamford, and did horribly. I resolved that I was never going to be that low in the standings again and I began solving much more often. Once I was solving a lot, constructing a puzzle seemed like a natural step.

What is the highlight of your crossword construction career and what's the best puzzle you've made? Why?

Highlights: I've really enjoyed working with Rich Norris from the very beginning -- he's willing to take the time to give detailed feedback and I've come a long way from the first puzzle of mine that he published years ago. Also, I've enjoyed being a part of CrosSynergy, because the editing is done by group review, and the constructor gets to address any issues pointed out in the review as he or she wishes. Since I'm the clue-writing half of Daily/Venzke, when we submit a puzzle to another outlet, a lot of the "me" part of the puzzle gets lost when the editor decides to rewrite some clues. But with CrosSynergy, I can address what the others are asking for and still keep my voice intact.

It's hard to pick one "best" puzzle, but one of my favorites was "Oh, You Beautiful Doll!" which was Bruce's and my first collaboration for CrosSynergy. The four theme entries were RAGGEDY ANN, RAINBOW BRITE, AMERICAN GIRL, and BETSY WETSY, which I thought was fun and inclusive of several decades' worth of pop culture. I want puzzles to embrace more recent references, not just stuff from the fifties and sixties, and I thought that puzzle was a great balance between older (RAGGEDY ANN, BETSY WETSY) and newer (RAINBOW BRITE, AMERICAN GIRL) pop culture.

How did you start working with Bruce Venzke and what does the collaborating process look like?

My first published puzzle -- the one with the chemistry theme -- was a solo effort. It was customary at the time to announce one's debut on the Cruciverb-L mailing list, so that's what I did. Bruce sent me a note to say he was impressed by how much thematic content I'd managed to stuff into the puzzle, and how did I do my grid work so well? I responded back saying that it required a heroic effort on my part, because I didn't (and still don't) consider grids my strong point. He said, "Really? Well, I hate writing clues!" I don't remember which of us said "Wanna work together?" at that point, but that's pretty much how it happened.

As for the collaboration process, one of us will come up with a theme (you'll notice that on some of our puzzles, his name comes first, and on others, mine does; whichever name is first is the one who came up with the theme), at which point Bruce builds a grid. If it's my theme, he may ask me to come up with different entries if it will make the grid-building process easier. Then he sends me a grid. I'll look over the grid to see if there are any too-similar answers that need to be removed, or if there's a word I don't know how to clue, and if grid changes are needed, I shoot it back to him to take care of that. If not, I write the clues, and he submits it to whatever publication we've decided is best for that particular puzzle.

You've been very prolific & creative, where do you normally find your theme inspirations?

It's funny, I don't think of myself as prolific, which is part of why I'm getting out of constructing! Bruce and I have been working together long enough that we have a large back-file of old themes -- maybe we sent a puzzle to the NY Times and it wasn't right for Will Shortz, but it's still a good theme and worthy of use somewhere else, for example. So we've been working out of that back catalog for some time. But when I was generating theme ideas more, I would say that inspiration always seemed to be a feast-or-famine thing. I'd hear a phrase and suddenly be able to think of six themes related to the phrase within minutes, or I could go for months without a new idea. My friends do tease me that I'm always counting letters -- if I hear a short, interesting-sounding phrase, I immediately tally up the number of letters to see if it would fit into a 15x15 grid!

What kind of puzzle do you solve every day? And who are your favorite constructors?

I'm an A-division solver (Bruce is not!), so I do a lot of puzzles. Every day, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, CrosSynergy (if I haven't already solved the puzzle during the review process), and Newsday, and once a week the Onion, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, Merl Reagle's puzzle. I also do puzzles in books, like Simon and Schuster or New York Sun collections, when I'm getting ready for the tournament.

My favorite puzzle is the Onion's, because it's written mostly by people from my generation. Crosswords tend to skew toward an older audience -- there are so many pop culture and history references from TV shows I'm too young to have seen, Cabinet staff from presidential administrations long before I was born, radio shows, old news stories, that sort of thing. We're all supposed to know who Clem Kadiddlehopper is, but when I write a clue that refers to, say, "Gossip Girl," and put it into a CrosSynergy puzzle, the other reviewers invariably respond with, "Who? What? I've never heard of that!" It's not that I think Clem Kadiddlehopper needs to go away entirely (though I wouldn't mind), but as a 31-year-old I like to solve puzzles that refer to the world we live in now, not the world of 40 or 50 years ago. The Onion puzzle is great for that. Plus it has less of the "Sunday morning breakfast test" filter on it, which I also enjoy.

My favorite constructors are the harder ones -- Bob Klahn, Byron Walden (even though he cost me the B championship in 2005), Brendan Emmett Quigley, Frank Longo, Joe DiPietro, basically the whole Saturday crew.

What's the reason for quitting making crossword? And what's your planning for the future?

For a while, puzzling was a huge part of my life, and if you asked me to describe myself in three sentences, one of those sentences would invariably be about crosswords. But more and more, my life has expanded to include a lot more than just puzzles. I was recently promoted to a senior management position at the advertising agency I work for, plus I now run marathons, sing in a choir, take Argentine tango classes, and study philosophy through an Ayn Rand Institute program. Plus, I got married last year and I do like to see my husband once in a while! So as these other parts of my life have grown tremendously, puzzles have felt less and less like something I do for fun and more like something I *have* to do, and that's not how I want to feel about it. So last year I told Bruce I wanted to stop doing puzzles once our last agreed-upon CrosSynergy puzzle was done.

Bruce is much more into constructing than I am, and he's going to continue on solo (or perhaps collaborating with others on occasion). He's always wanted to do more constructing together, and I've kept pushing him to do less, both because I simply didn't have time to enjoy it and because once we started doing it on a deadline, as CrosSynergy works, I felt like my ability to come up with good ideas was compromised. I have to work on deadline every day in my day job, and that's fine, but it doesn't work too well for me when generating theme ideas -- the ideas flow much more freely for me when there's no pressure. So now that I've removed that pressure from myself, I'm not saying I'll never construct again -- if I have a really great idea, I'll work on a grid for it and send it out. If that means I produce one puzzle a year where I used to co-produce twenty, that's completely fine with me. I just want that one puzzle to be one I thoroughly enjoy making! And I'll still be around at the tournament every year -- I certainly haven't stopped solving, and I will continue to try to beat Tyler :)

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Stella Daily's documentary movie 'Wordplay'. Very enjoyable interview. Thanks.

Sara

Lemonade714 said...

What a diverse group constructors are, and it seems we are losing another constructor. Thank you both for the very honest and insightful interview.

Anonymous said...

Who? I never heard of Clem Kadiddlehopper.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for solving the Daily/Venzke and Venzke/Daily byline mystery. Be back soon, Stella.

C. C. said...

Sara,
Thanks for pointing it out. I watched "Wordplay" two years ago. Don't remember seeing Stella.

PJB-Chicago said...

When I was somewhat obsessed with Jeopardy on TV, Stella was a contestant. I remember her sparkly personality, humor and smarts very clearly. I'll miss seeing her byline so often, but hope to see it again.

Thanks for the interview, C. C.! Nicely done, and one of the highlights of your wonderful blog.

Ellen said...

Stella was the one in crossword pajamas in "Wordplay." She was later seen in the B-division finals. Now she's an A-level solver.

Anonymous said...

I'll miss her Daily crosswords.