Apr 14, 2010

Interview with Gary Steinmehl

Gary Steinmehl, whose surname means "stone flour" according to our regular poster Spitzboov, has had over 165 puzzles published by various major newspapers, including LA Times, NY Times, NY Sun, USA Today, Chronicle of Higher Learning, etc.

No more introduction is needed. This interview is definitely one of the most inspiring and inspired ones I've conducted
.

What is your background? And how did you get into constructing crossword puzzles?

I started making crosswords at the age of 12. My mother was a very good solver, and I noticed that it didn’t seem hard for me to make them. I eventually made books of them for her and her friends. It all seemed to come to me naturally. Eventually, I sold a puzzle to Senior Scholastic magazine, what a thrill. (By the way, not long ago a junior editor of the NYT wrote me and said that he thought he had found the first crossword I ever sold, Dec. 1954 (That’s the one - I have a copy.) While in the Army, I made crosswords for the Army Newspaper using names of our personnel as the “theme”; later when working at ITT Gilfillan, I also made name and product crosswords for their newsletters (I retired there as a Publications Manager after 36 years). And, as an aside, all my Christmas cards for the past 25 years have been puzzles of one sort or another.

How does becoming a constructor affect the way you solve & enjoy a puzzle? Do you mentally rework a portion of others' grid when the part is surfeited with obscure answers/crosswordese/abbreviations?

For me, the main link between maker and doer primarily involves admiration for the very things I attempt to do: use of a good theme, interesting words, and clever clues. However, when some parts get a bit clumsy for my taste. I have been known to jot down in the margin a better version of a given corner.

You've had over 126 puzzles published by major newspapers since 2003. How do you maintain such productivity? What kind of magazines/books do you read every day for theme inspirations?

I am happy to report that, with today’s puzzle, I now have 165 puzzles published in the LAT, NYT, USA Today, Chronicle of Higher Learning, a large number of them in the NY Sun (no longer in business), and recently, one in GAMES magazine.

Motivation: about 6 years ago I was diagnosed with cancer, and was told that I should keep my mind stimulated by reading and doing crosswords. Well, I had been constructing them as a hobby since I was 12 years old, so I decided to step-up my hobby activities. I began constructing dozens of them, circulating them around to my friends, convinced that they were as good as the newspaper versions. Sadly, for quite a while. … rejection… , rejection… , rejection… , and finally, an acceptance by USA Today. What a thrill! It seemed to be a version of a glass ceiling breakthrough – because for a while thereafter, I was accepted more and more, particularly with the NY Sun. Since I was dealing with cancer, I was interested in fast turnarounds since my personal time frame was a priority. NY Sun received a submission and responded with yes or no in a day or two. Most of them were completed within a week; (NYT turnaround is about 4 months; LAT is a comfortable one month or so - I also enjoy working with Rich Norris.)

Typically, everyday news, advertisements, phrases, movies, events and names provide my inspiration - involving these elements and interesting words in clever ways. Sometimes my “cleverness” is so obscure that my editor wife doesn’t know what I’m talking about. They get discarded or seriously reworked.

I constantly am on the lookout for theme ideas in newspapers, literature, trivia sources, and I scribble notes of “good stuff” on little pieces of paper that clutter my pockets, and I mentally stack letter groupings for future use. My wife often kids me about staring off into space at inappropriate times, working on thematic ideas. It’s true, all quite puzzling. Since I am retired (now 73 years old) I have plenty of time to work on my creations. So far, the ideas just keep coming from deep inside somewhere. I don’t question or analyze the process, I’m just happy it happens.

What is a perfect puzzle to you? And what kind of themes/fill appeal to you and what kind do you try to avoid in your puzzles?

I enjoy clever word themes and amusing ideas – I am surprised when a particularly simple one appears. As far as fills, I can’t help but admire multiple words stacked up. I constantly play with trying to make them, but have some difficulty. I recently read where computers are used fill grids. That probably explains some of the stupendous built-up groupings. I still like to do them by hand. I try to keep crosswordese down to a minimum. Interestingly, solvers don’t seem to realize that we don’t want to use “those” words; rather (unfortunately) they’re a necessity when other good parts come together.

Which puzzles do you solve every day? And who are your favorite constructors?

My wife and I do the LA Times and NY Times crosswords daily over breakfast (on NYT Fridays and Saturdays we occasionally “cheat” with a Google answer or two.)

As far as favorite constructors, strangely enough, I don’t have any. I just approach each solution on its own merits. (Although out of curiosity, I recently have followed some of Dan Naddor’s work in the LAT more closely after sadly finding out about his passing from cancer.) Our syndicated version of the NYT does not carry the author’s name, so I don’t know who did them anyway.

Besides crossword, what are your other hobbies?

I am an avid amateur piano player (jazz and standards). I had two years of lessons when I was nine years old, and have played by ear ever since. I have also made a number of films as a hobby: a documentary to explain Jazz to non-jazz folks, one for each of my girls for their wedding program, one to commemorate my uncle's 90th birthday, and another more recently for my grandkids so when I'm gone they can see what their "Pops" was all about. I enjoy sports of every kind (as can be seen by many of my puzzle entries). All of which leads to activities with my wife and our five children and twelve grandchildren: trips by plane to Hawaii, by cruise ship to Mexico, and by pool parties in our backyard. And by the way, yes, those kids do make my life fuller and make me feel younger!

14 comments:

Lemonade714 said...

What a wonderful interview of an interesting man and I am so pleased to see him still constructing. It was very sad to learn that he, like Dan Naddor, constrcuted puzzles to deal with cancer, and I am sure we all pray for long life for Mr. Steinmehl.

Anonymous said...

Yet another musician crossword compiler.

Andrea said...

Great interview. It is always so interesting to learn about the constructors. What a treat it must be to get his annual Christmas card!

kazie said...

Inspiring indeed. I certainly hope that Gary's prognosis improves.

I was interested to learn of his interest in using names in his work, as I'd counted 22 proper nouns or references in this puzzle.

Thanks to both Gary and C.C. for this interview.

MJ said...

Thank you C.C. and Gary Steinmehl for a delightful, insightful interview, so very positive and upbeat. Mr. Steinmehl, your approach toward life and living, not to mention puzzling, is inspiring, indeed!

Anonymous said...

I am so relieved to know that even Gary resorts to Google occasionally on Friday and Saturday puzzles. I thought it was just my amateur status that led me to do that!

JD said...

another great interview from a very talented and blessed man.Hopefully, we will see many more of your puzzles.Thanks to you both.

Anonymous said...

Gary, You are a great neighbor and a pleasure to have you for a neighbor and friend.

Todd G said...

As a fairly new constructor, who is very interested in learning about other constructors (just got a copy of Maleska's book "Across and Down", which has several such bios), I really appreciate C.C.'s interviews of successful constructors.

I too am glad to hear Mr. Steinmehl's current prognosis is good. And I am inspired to keep plugging away lo these many rejections I get.

Lucina said...

I agree with all of the above comments about Mr. Steinmehl's inspiring atitude, prayers for a long life, and wouldn't his Christmas card be a treat?

Thank you, C. C. for the interview and Mr. Steinmehl for granting it.

Tinbeni said...

Mr. Steinmehl you make a good puzzle.

I found it interesting that you had EDIE Brickell crossing Trent REZNOR (both of whom started out in 1988).

Throw in the Bobby SEALE (1968) and a subtle ref. to TIM Curry, early 70's and the LTD 60-80's Ford.

What a timely offering.

Lemonade714 said...

Todd G.

Never give in, never give up!

We are here for you

C. C. said...

Gary Steinmehl on his name:

"It's simply stone flour - Our early people in Germany were probably millers, grinders of flour. We've often joked about how much simpler our lives would have been with the name Miller! Everytime I use my name, I have to spell it out - no one ever gets the H in it! By the way though, we are the only ones with the Steinmehl name - we have some relatives in Alabama, Arizona, and thruout California, but to our knowledge, and my brother has traveled a lot in Germany, no other family has our name. Strangely enough, there is a product over there called Steinsmehl, which is a powder that is used for various things including covering fields where geese live to kill the smell. So I often tell people that our name is a derivation of German goose litter. It really impresses them. (Our family came over from Germany in the mid 1800's and settled in Terre Haute, Ind. My grandfather moved away to Birmingham Ala. and then for retirement to Hollywood California. He bought a place across the street from the Charlie Chaplin studios. My father lived 3 blocks away, and my brother and I were born in Hollywood. We don't run into too many natives of Hollywood. Also, it was only 8 years ago that I saw it snow! Ah, Southern California. I've got lots more stuff, if anyone's interested. If not, I remain Gary Miller."

Anonymous said...

One of the best in your interview series, CC.

Thank you, Gary. My family loved your NYS puzzles.

Sara