Jul 27, 2010

Interview with Harvey Estes

Many of us were awed by Harvey Estes' May 30 "Divided Countries" puzzle, in which eight country names are divided and span across mostly two word phrases, and each country is individually placed in the grid as well.

Harvey is one of the top constructors in the country. He has had 116 puzzles published by NY Times alone, making him the 8th most prolific NYT constructor of all times.

Additionally, Harvey's work has also appeared in CroSynergy, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, NY Sun, Games Magazine, etc. He's also one of the contributors to The Crosswords Club, edited by Rich Norris.

Hope you enjoy this insightful, informative and fun-filled interview.

I liked that the unifier OUTER CLOTHES is positioned at the very heart of the grid crossing each other & the pinwheel layout of the other four theme answers. Is this the grid you had in mind immediately after you had the theme set ready or did you also try several other grid alternatives and then picked the best?

Actually, placing OUTER CLOTHES at the center was Rich's idea. I had titled the puzzle "Outer Garments" (just to give it a name when we discussed it) and I had S(COWL) at the center of the grid. Rich's approach was better, so we went with it.

What kind of troubles did you go through to finesse the grid?

The main problem was finding theme entries that would fit symmetrically into the grid. Once that was settled the grid wasn't so hard. The theme is always the hardest thing. Once I get that nailed down, I can usually hammer out a fill for it. A 15x15 grid is a small place. I tell all the interesting words and phrases, "You can run, but you can't hide" ... okay, that's just constructor bravado, but it's a fun thing to say whether it's true or not.

Who introduced crosswords to you and how did you get into crossword construction?

My dad always worked crosswords when I was a kid, so I grew up around them. Later on I got interested in cryptic crosswords via Games magazine and the first puzzles I constructed were cryptics. They're still my favorite, but the market is so small I don't get to do them much. In the early '90s Stanley Newman offered a correspondence course in crossword construction, so I took it and that led to my first puzzle being published with Newsday. That got me started in crosswords as a hobby, but over the years it has gradually become a full-time job.

You have lots of puzzles published by NY Times, LA Times, NY Sun, etc. How do you describe your style? What kind of themes/fill appeal to you? And what are the kind that you try to avoid?

I like pun themes the best, but they're hard to do, and sometimes it's tricky to sell an editor on a theme. What works and what doesn't is pretty subjective. You hate to see hours and hours of work go down the drain because of disagreements about consistency with an idea that's deliberately nonsense in the first place. So I do more straightforward themes than I used to. In my fills I like to work in phrases as much as possible, because I think they're usually more interesting. I also like to think I get pretty clean fills but I guess most constructors think that about their own work. Each individual has a different opinion about which less desirable words can be tolerated and which can't, so that's another call that's very subjective. I can't think of a theme type that I try to avoid. I'll try anything once, cruciverbally. A while back I saw an article in which an editor said he really hated a particular theme because he had seen it so many times and hoped never to see it again. So I immediately got to work on a puzzle that used the theme but, hopefully, put a twist on it to make it more interesting. I sent it to a different editor, though.

Where do you normally find your construction muse? What books/magazines/website do you read for theme inspirations?

I used to go to Barnes & Noble a lot; sitting and reading and listening to the soft music would often get me going. Then they changed the music from instrumental to mostly vocal and now it's like reading with an annoying person trying to talk to you. I should sue them. But mostly the muse lives wherever people use language. Watching TV, reading the paper, making small talk, you never know when a phrase will stick in the mind and start tugging at you, whispering, "There's a theme here, there's a theme here ..." I guess the trick is to find the places and situations that help your mind to become receptive to new ideas.

What kind of references tools do you use for crossword construction and clue accuracy check?

I dunno, I guess all the usual suspects. I hate to admit it, but if I'm worried about accuracy, I often just retreat to a safer clue. Life is too short to spend hours researching one clue out of 144.

What is the highlight of your construction career and what is the puzzle you are most proud of?

These days I don't think there are any highlights; I just enjoy the day-to-day life of making puzzles. A crossword well-done is its own reward. I used to think, if I could just get a puzzle in this venue or that, then I will have arrived. But every venue has some good puzzles, some not so good. Who knows, maybe an editor used one of my puzzles and thought it was so-so, but, what the heck, the deadline was bearing down. Years ago when she was working with Dell, Nancy Schuster said to me, "You know, I don't love every single puzzle that I publish." Remembering that puts things in perspective for me. I'm just making crosswords, not working on a cure for cancer. So that makes my favorite puzzle the one I'm working on now. Unless it really sucks. In which I case, I just use it to vacuum the carpet. But if I had to pick favorite puzzles, I have two candidates. Both were turned down by almost every editor a knew. Finally CROSSW RD magazine printed the one with the jokes about cannibals and a health magazine printed the one with the bran muffin joke. Both magazines later went out of business, so I guess that makes me the Terminator.

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

I don't solve much. Constructing puzzles takes a lot of time, and more importantly, it's a lot more fun (not to mention that it pays the bills). I construct full-time, so solving can seem like working on my day off. Anyway, I'm too critical. I look at someone else's puzzle and think, "Well, I wouldn't have done it that way ..." and then I remind myself that the constructor could just as easily say the same thing about one of my puzzles. Everybody has his or her own style. So I don't really have a favorite constructor. If I'm solving a puzzle and I like it, then that constructor is my favorite for the moment. I guess that makes me a Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young solver: love the one you're with.

Besides crosswords, what else do you do for fun?

I like working with music. I play guitar and bass and sing a little for the contemporary service at church, along with doing music with children, at a nursing home, parties, and for whoever else has less demanding standards and questionable taste.


Dennis said...

A very interesting, informative interview. I wonder how many others got hooked on puzzles because of Games magazine; I know I did. And again, as we've seen in other interviews as well, inspiration seems to come from 'situational awareness', or just keeping your eyes and ears open to the surroundings. And is it me, or does it seem like almost all of our constructors have a good sense of humor and are musically inclined?

Very nice job, C.C. and Harvey; thanks.

Lemonade714 said...

Yes, thank you both for more insight into the world of construction. To make puzzles a complete career is an interesting choice. Also, hearing how an editor can reshuffle a puzzle even after the theme clues are picked was enjoyable.

Anonymous said...

Yet another musician compiler.

lois said...

Thank you CC and Mr. Estes for the interview. What a hoot! Great sense of humor and a wealth of talent. What a package! Also, good questions, CC. It's interesting to me to see what the constructor finds interesting and how he approaches the task as well as how he got started. Had to LOL at the cannibal and bran muffin jokes puzzles & their outcomes. Well done. Thank you both.

kazie said...

Great interview, a really enjoyable read. I guess a strong motivation must be earning you living that way, whereas for most constructors we've heard from it's more of a hobby. It would be interesting to know what there was not to like about your two favorites that most editors turned down.

Thanks C.C. and Harvey!

Spitzboov said...

Thanks to C.C. for the interview and to Harvey for the insight to his puzzle construction philosophy. Great questions and thoughtful candid answers.

I look forword to future opportunities to solve his puzzles. Thanks for sharing.

erieruth said...

Thank you for the insighful interview. It was so interesting to have an inside view of such a unique profession. Mr. Estes is remarkable.

Anonymous said...

I echo Spitboov's view. Thanks for the candid answers, Harvey.

NY fan

JD said...

Thanks C.C. and Harvey for a great interview. It is always so interesting to hear how each constructor goes about making puzzles.Loved your sense of humor! Loved your puzzle.

Hahtool said...

Great interview. It is always so interesting to hear from the constructors and get their points of view. CC, I am so glad you are continuing this tradition.

Anonymous said...

Great interview! Your interviews, IMO, are what make you stand out from the crowd of CW blogs

Anonymous said...

"Love the One You're With" is a 1970 single by folk rocker Stephen Stills. The first release off his first solo album Stephen Stills, it rose to the top twenty of the pop singles chart, peaking at #14.

Chickie said...

This was a very insightful and intersting interview. Thank you C.C. for your questions, and Harvey for your candid answers.

You have a great sense of humor and I can see where you might want to include jokes in some of your puzzles.

MJ said...

Outstanding interview/questions!

Harvey Estes,
I look forward to more of your puzzles. A very enjoyable solve today. Thank you.

David said...

Marvelous sense of humor. A very enjoyable read. Thanks you both.