Feb 1, 2011

Interview with Bruce Venzke

Many of us enjoy Bruce Venzke's puzzles, which often feature colloquial, "everyday language" 15-letter spanners and smooth fill.

Bruce (in the middle) is a veteran constructor with over 500 puzzles under his belt. He has been published by the NY Times, LA Times, NY Sun, Newsday, Wall Street Journal, CrosSynergy and various newspapers and magazines. Rich Norris mentioned at the end of last year that Bruce Venzke is one of the top 10 constructors for the LA Times in 2010.

Bruce will be at ACPT during March 18-20, 2011. Say Hi to him if you also attend the event. I'd also like to say "Thank you" to Gail Grabowski for making this interview possible.

Can you tell us a bit of your background and how you got into crossword construction?

I got very involved in pocket billiards while at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. That led to my writing a monthly magazine column about pool and billiards for 30 years, until 2004. I had done a few small pool-theme puzzles for that column along the way, and in the process of trying to do those in a halfway legitimate way, I had found out a bit about the mainstream puzzle construction process. So, for whatever reason (I'm still not exactly sure), I decided to see if I could successfully do a "real" puzzle or two. On my second submission, I was lucky enough to stumble onto a theme which Rich Norris felt had promise, and with his kind counsel and assistance, got my first acceptance (March, 2002). Friends made me feel like I'd split the atom or something, so I kept going. (I guess that really means "ego.")

How would you describe your puzzle style? I noticed that your grids often feature nice grid spanners.

If I even have a signature style, it would probably derive from the emphasis on using predominantly "everyday language." I'm not a great solver by any means, having a limited education, particularly in the area of history, literature, the arts, etc. So in constructing, I soon decided that I ought to concentrate most on what I know best. As a result, I try very, very hard to keep what I consider "difficult" words and entries out... yet still have as much lively stuff as I can muster up. Each of us would draw a different "line in the sand" for assessing that quality, of course. But I'm pretty sure that if asked, top tier solvers would agree that most of my themed puzzles are too easy for their liking. (Some have said that even without being asked!) But I'm very much an "every man" myself, and I guess I try to construct with me in mind. If that makes me mostly an "early-week" constructor, it's OK with me; there are lots of tough puzzles out there for the cracker-jack solvers to solve. (And they really can solve, can't they? I'm just astonished watching the ACPT tournament every year! Unbelievable.)

I do like the elegance of 15s in the grid when possible, and I'm pleased you noticed that I use them when appropriate.

Which part do you normally spend the most time on, in the construction process: theme brainstorming, gridding or cluing?   

Building and filling grids is what I enjoy the most about constructing, and I think I probably spend more time at that than the average constructor, even for routine grids. I really dislike partials, cheaters, one-way-in corners and grid patterns without lots of interlock throughout, and trying to avoid those is time-consuming (at least for me!). And of course, they're not always totally avoidable. But I try hard. As for theme development, well, the longer I construct, the more time it takes, as new ideas get to be more and more elusive. Finally, cluing is the phase I like least, and as a result, it often takes the longest of all. (Note: On the nearly 400 collaborative puzzles I've done, my collaborator has done the clues on... every single one.)

You're one of those few constructors who make both themed and themeless puzzles. What are the major differences in your approach in terms of construction?

The biggest difference for me is that for themeless puzzles, which are to be more challenging, I drop much of my self-imposed restriction on the "difficult words" I seek to avoid in themed puzzles. That means I'm constantly looking up oodles of words that I don't happen to know, and trying to assess whether they're genuinely obscure or too difficult (as I might first think), or just another word that I don't personally know, and that would be fine in the puzzle. As a result, themeless puzzles take me a lot more time. I'm also a sucker for trying to have visually appealing symmetry or grid patterns in a themeless. That also translates into more time.

What kind of reference books/websites do you use for theme entry selection assistance and clue accuracy checks?

RH2 is a must for me, as is OneLook and all of its related sources of information. Even Wikipedia, taken with a careful grain of salt, is very helpful. Google, of course, gives us basically the whole Internet.

You've had over 500 puzzles published by various newspapers/magazines since you started constructing in 2002; where do you find your theme inspirations and how do you maintain productivity?

I've been very fortunate to collaborate with several fine constructors, starting with Stella Daily in 2002. We did almost 300 puzzles together, until she retired last year (only temporarily, I hope). Vic Fleming and I have also teamed up on 50 puzzles since 2005. And now Gail Grabowski and I have joined forces quite recently, agreeing to do ongoing collaborative work, and creating about a dozen puzzles so far. I mention this not only because they have all been so valuable and helpful to me, but because it means they've contributed about half of the themes needed! Good themes are always in demand. Like many constructors, I do keep a pad in my pocket and at the ready at all times. I jot down every fragmented (and often half-baked) idea that comes to mind. About eighty percent of them don't make the cut, but to date, about one a week has, so that's fine. In any case, coming up with themes poses the overall biggest challenge for me.

What kind of puzzles do you solve every day and which constructors do you find most inspiring?

I solve the early week NYTs, and the LAT daily. And I see (if not solve) the CrosSynergy puzzles as they're being developed, of course. Not being a great solver -- as well as being hooked on KenKen -- that activity represents enough daily solving and puzzling for me. As far as my favorites among constructors is concerned, wow! I'm impressed over and over again by the work of so many constructors, that to start naming them would necessarily do an injustice to those I would have to omit from any list I compiled. I'll just rely on the old saying: "You know who you are."

Besides crosswords, what else do you do for fun?

Principal fun? My wife Jeanne and I have been to 27 states to ride 325 different roller coasters in the past 11 years; that's now our principal hobby together, along with being parents of two and grandparents of two. (All four in Austin, Texas, so we spend some time there, as well.) I go to Vegas twice a year with "the boys," and I've also been going to a certain tournament on the East Coast every winter for several years now. Poker club every two weeks, too. That's about it!


Dennis said...

Very, very enjoyable, informative interview. I'm a fan of Bruce's, as much for the 15-letter fill as for the interesting cluing.

I like the fact that Bruce is comfortable with the early-week-level puzzle construction as he does it quite well. It's refreshing to see puzzles comprised solely of 'everyday' words/phrases.

Bruce, C.C., thanks for an outstanding interview; I really enjoyed it.

thehondohurricane said...

CC, what a nice interview. Bruce is a interesting fellow with a couple of not so common hobbies. An old friend used to be a Roller Coaster enthusiast like Bruce and would travel the country to ride a new coaster.

I was impressed with the detail he went into explaining the constructors mind set. Until I joined this blog, it was something I never gave any thought too. Hell, I'd just try to solve the puzzles and those I was unsuccessful at would be soundly cursed.

I'll be looking forward to more puzzles from Bruce now that I know a little about him.

HeartRx said...

Thank you C.C. for a great interview. Wow, Bruce is such a talented constructor, and I absolutely love his style. His puzzles are always on the money when it comes to things I can dredge up from somewhere in the gray matter, and now I know why.

It's interesting to hear about his hobbies of pool, poker, and roller coasters. Now I know where today's theme came from - I really chuckled when I got the unifier !

I am looking forward to more of his collaborations with Gail. Bruce - thank you for all you have contributed to this puzzling world!

Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this interview. Thanks, Bruce.

WikWak said...

As above, I enjoyed the interview and the insights it provided.

Randomish thoughts about the puzzle:

Liked CUETHEORCHESTRA, PRONG, and SPOONFED; liked seeing OAKEN and KEGS so near each other; and liked being able to see "ANTI GAGA" positioned the way it was.

Didn't care at all for OOHERS, and "BRO" for "short relative": meh.

Overall, though, a very fun Tuesday solve.

Now to go check the gas in the generator and the snow blower and get ready to remove up to 23" of partly cloudy from the drive by this time tomorrow... yes, I do remember the blizzard of '67, and no, I do not particularly care to repeat it but what the heck; it's winter and this is Chicago.

Annette said...

It much more fun doing the puzzles once you know the constructor a little bit, especially when her sounds like such a nice, normal guy!

Thank you both for sharing such an interesting interview!


Anonymous said...

bruce is one of the giants in xword biz. thanks for giving us your insights.

SwenglishMom said...

Really appreciated getting to know more about Bruce as I enjoyed his Wash Post contribution this week.