May 1, 2010

Interview with Robert H. Wolfe

Long time LA Times or NY Times solvers are probably familiar with Robert Wolfe. He has had 57 puzzles published by the NY Times alone.

Since Rich Norris took over the editorship of the LA Times Daily Crossword in late 1999, Robert Wolfe has made over 123 puzzles for LAT. Mr. Wolfe is also a regular contributor of Stan Newman's Newsday Puzzle. Additionally, he has also made puzzles for our old Tribune Media Service (TMS) Daily, NY Sun, Washington Post, Games Magazine and other publications that I've not previously heard of.

What is the seed entry for this puzzle? And what kind of troubles did you go through to make the grid work?

There were 3 seed entries for this themeless puzzle Rich will publish in May - all with 15 letters:

DON’T KID YOURSELF

IT’S A MYSTERY TO ME

I WON’T LET YOU DOWN

All 3 are common enough phrases in daily speech but rarely used in puzzles. I’ve used this grid before (with 3 - 15 letter entries) many times. This grid was an easy fill with about 15 compound words and only 1 cheater per each 1/2 diagonal.

What is your background? And how did you develop an interest in crossword constructing?

Well, there really wasn’t much else to do in the asylum -- just kidding. I’ve been a veterinarian (small animal practitioner) for 42 years, but I had such a poor vocabulary in school while growing up in Newton, Mass., I probably didn’t even know how to spell or define ‘vocabulary’. At Michigan State’s College of Veterinary Medicine, I and a girl (the smartest student in the class) routinely showed up early for our daily 8 AM class. For many months I watched her do the crossword in the college paper, and, being somewhat competitive with her, I started doing them as well. She helped me learn the crosswordese lingo of the time and I enjoyed the challenge, though I never completed one before she did. At our 40th veterinary class reunion which I helped to organize last year, I gave her a copy of my Saturday NY Times that had been published the week before, along with a note thanking her for getting me started with this obsession.

How would you describe your puzzle style? And what kind of themes/fill appeal to you? And what kind of entries do you try to avoid?

I don’t know that I have a style, per se. I’ve always tried to be completely original, which was easy when I started in the early 1970s, since most things hadn’t been done yet. That’s getting harder to do and I construct more themeless puzzles now. I’ve always striven for humor, in themed puzzles and particularly in clues. I made up such clues as ‘Athletic supporter’ for TEE. I love making up Limericks and quips, such as this TV promo bulletin:

THE WORLD TO END AT

NINE TONIGHT

DETAILS AT ELEVEN

In themeless puzzles I like having 3 to 6 -15 letter phrases like the one Rich will publish in May, and build the puzzles around them. Rich likes those, but Will often rejects them, complaining that solvers may be confused by thinking it’s a themed puzzle when it’s not.

You've been constructing for 36 years, what's the highlight of your construction career?

Odd, since I’m only 35 years old! (I wish). My first puzzle published in the New York Times by Gene Maleska was a biggie. I had it laminated. It now sits somewhere in my closet gathering dust. I got a puzzle in S & S and GAMES prior to that. I liked that GAMES used that first puzzle I sent to them in a national contest - and Stan Newman was the winner! I was proud that during Fred’s tenure at the Washington Post I was one of his most frequently published constructors. The same applied to Wayne’s tenure at the Chicago Tribune. Too bad my most receptive editors have been replaced by syndication. I keep imploring Rich and John Samson to keep their jobs (not that they have much say in the matter).

Where do you normally find your crossword muse? And how do you deal with "Writer's Blocks"?

Inspiration comes from life all the time. Since high school I’ve been an incorrigible punster and I’m always pulling material out of the air - from something someone says or from a road sign or ad, or from TV. I’d bet most constructor’s minds work in that sort of mode. I do occasionally get a block but it doesn’t throw me. I always snap out of it and start doing 3 or 4 puzzles at once. At times I just sit at the computer and start playing with words and a puzzle just comes to me. Having mentioned the computer, I’m still amazed at this thing and often think back to the old days, making up grids, using copying machines and wearing down a lot of pencils and erasers.

What references tools do you use for cluing and fact checks?

I have a library of reference books on film, TV, pop songs, opera, Shakespeare, almanacs, foreign sayings, mythology, Italian, French, Spanish and German dicts, abridged and unabridged dicts, books of quotations, several bibles, idiom and slang books, sports encyclopedia and many more. BUT - nowadays I just Google it and find at least two web sources for fact checking or for background on people being clued. Most of the cluing just comes from the punning.

What kind of crosswords do you solve daily and who are your favorite constructors?

Living on Long Island in NY, I do the NY Times daily and Sundays and Stan’s Saturday Stumper on Sats. Lately I like Doug Peterson’s themeless puzzles. I have no favorites - they’re all outstanding. Alfio Micci used to impress me as a standout constructor.

Besides crosswords, what else do you do for fun?

I’ve run 3 miles daily since high school, swim 1 to 2 miles daily in the summer, play piano and guitar, love movies and photography, love international travel with my wife (we’ve had 28 happy years of marriage - 39 altogether, but about 28 have been happy - no, it’s just a joke - don’t publish that or I’ll never make it to my 40th!) I write a lot - have had some poetry published and have written a screenplay and an action/adventure/romance novel that’s gone unpublished. The extra vocabulary helps when I write but apparently the only thing Hemingway and I have in common is that we were both born male!

8 comments:

Lemonade714 said...

It is especially interesting to view the comments of someone who has spanned a generation of puzzle creation. Adapting to both the changes in technology, and the philosophy of different editors must be a real challenge.

It also is amazing how many common phrases have 15 letters, I wonder if Mr. Wolfe counts the letters in his head, or uses the computer for that as well.

Once again we learn our constructors are interesting, complex and of course competitive. I wonder, if he tried to get the young lady's name into his puzzle.

Thank you both

Anonymous said...

Yet another musician compiler.

Anonymous said...

My wife and I did Sat’s CW in record time. But what does “only 1 cheater per each 1/2 diagonal” mean? Lost me there.

Jsg

Post Script: My line has been “We’ve been happily married for 48 years, except for the five which we don’t talk about.” I like your version better.

C. C. said...

There are 2 cheaters/helpers in today's grid: one directly above 15D: DYE and one directly under 54D: ATM. Mirror images of each other, hence 1 cheater per each 1/2 diagonal.

Clear Ayes said...

As has been shown with other interviewees, contructors always have many interests other than crossword puzzles.

What an amusing and charming guy Robert Wolfe is! No wonder today's puzzle was fun for me.

As a bonus, I identified the "cheater" squares without being told. (Apparently, I can learn :o)

Thanks again to C.C. and to Robert H. Wolfe for the interesting interview.

JD said...

I really loved this down to earth interview! The story about how Mr. Wolfe began puzzling was great!I could picture that.

I wonder how hard it was for those who began creating puzzles with pencil/paper and then switching over to the computer.Would it change the thought process for a time?

Thanks again,CC, for taking the time to do these "mini biographies" of these interesting constructors.

Lucina said...

Really enjoyable interview, C.C. What a great sense of humor Mr. Wolfe has; I believe it is essential for a puzzle constructor as the cwds are usually fun, full of puns and deceitful clues.

Mr. Wolfe sounds like a jovial fellow.

Frenchie said...

C.C.,
Concerning Mr. Wolfe's interview, it was well fleshed out piece and I enjoy that.
Interestingly enough, I had been in a CWC slump lately; not wowed my many of the recent constructors. Mr. Wolf's construction today
has been a breath of fresh air, so to speak,most enjoyable and I hope to see more of him in the future.