Feb 4, 2011

Interview with Ed Sessa

There are a few LA Times constructors whose byline always excites me, and Ed Sessa is one of them. His themes are consistently entertaining and always have fun twists. His RAIN CATS AND DOGS is one of my all-time favorites.

Ed had his first puzzle published by the NY Times in 2007, since then, he has had a total 20 puzzle published by the NY Times and LA Times. I asked Ed a few questions, and was very delighted by his prompt and informative answers.

What's your background and how did you get into crossword construction?

I’m a pediatrician living in upstate New York. Although it was all science in med school, my undergraduate education at Regis and Holy Cross was a Jesuit one, emphasizing English (my major), classical Latin and Greek language, grammar, writing etc. I think that developed in me a great fascination with the flexibility and nuances of our language. Over the years I wrote puzzles (mostly cryptics) for local publications and clubs, and even had a few tries with Eugene Maleska (thumbs very much down). In 2007 I submitted a puzzle to Will Shortz and was invited to resubmit it with one theme entry change. The final acceptance was an indescribable feeling, to be felt again when Rich Norris accepted my first puzzle for the LAT a bit later. Thanks to them both for their openness to new constructors.

There is often something nicely unexpected about your themes. The recent DO BE DO BE DO and RAIN CATS AND DOGS in 2009 come to mind. What kind of themes/fill do you prefer and what kind do you try to avoid?

I try to develop themes with humor and surprise, what some might call an “aha” moment, even if one might have to look at the finished puzzle for a minute or two to figure that out. However there’s a catch here: on one extreme is a puzzle where once one or two theme entries are filled, the others can be surmised without having to work the crosses. Then a solver has little motivation to complete the puzzle. On the other extreme is the puzzle where many solvers have no “clue” to what the puzzle is all about even after completing everything. Not everyone consults a blogger to find out what’s going on in a puzzle and that’s one unsatisfied solver! To me, either extreme is a failure on the constructor’s part and I’ve felt bad to read that a solver had no idea what my puzzle was all about. The same goes for fill and clueing: we all try for fresh words and phrases (“sparkle” as Manny N. would say) and new ways to clue familiar words (what new can one say about “aloe”) but all too often that can lead to obscurities or clueing that is a little “too clever”, an “inside joke” to sort of speak. That’s where a good editor steps in to troubleshoot themes, fills, and clues. Although you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, editors can make constructors look pretty good. It really is a team undertaking.

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

There are enough computer programs out there to almost equalize the playing field for gridding and filling so coming up with a fresh, new theme is by far the most difficult. There are a lot of people out there working on crossword themes so there will be a lot of repetition. I had a KISS theme ready to go the same day Donna Levin’s wonderful crossword appeared in the LA Times with the same theme (I think we must be somehow related after the Jan. 5th “Mr. Ed” NYT/LAT dupe). Here one has to do the best one can and the key I feel is to develop the ability to be self-critical. After a couple of published crosswords, I went through a long string of rejections. I credit Nancy Salomon for driving home the point, in her own inimitable way, that one has to constantly be one’s own best critic-throw out a puzzle with two great entries but one “iffy” one, start from scratch if something’s not right. Even so, I still get my share of rejections, but sometimes one editor will like immensely what another editor has rejected, just as some bloggers/solvers who share their feelings on the web pro or con. One can better deal with this disparity if one is satisfied that he or she has put out the best product one can.

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

I use predominantly the RHUD, Roget’s Thesaurus, OneLook Dictionary Search and Wikipedia online. I also use Matt Ginsberg’s clue database and the Cruciverb database, mostly to see if a clue has been used before. That’s not always easy to do, and I don’t feel bad using a good clue if I at least came up with that clue independently

You've been quite productive since you had your first puzzle with the NY Times in 2007, total ten NY Times & ten LA Times, four of them are big Sundays. Where do you find your theme inspirations and how do you maintain such productivity and originality?

Most of my theme ideas come to me while walking my dog, or strangely enough before falling asleep at night (a sure recipe for insomnia). I think there are many theme types and techniques one can use. For two examples: 1. A title or punch line phrase presents itself and one tries to find a puzzle there e.g. I heard the Sinatra line “dobedobedo” on the radio and (after annoying my wife for days singing it) thought of a way to get it into a puzzle. There it was: 4 homophones for “do” and three for “be”, and the possibility for symmetry to boot – a cruciverbalist’s nirvana! 2. A common idiom comes to mind that can be interpreted differently, sliced and diced, or treated concretely as in “RAINCATSANDDOGS” or Joe Krozel’s nice “ONAGAINOFFAGAIN” puzzle. How do I maintain “productivity”? Nothing of any practical importance gets done around the house on time (!).

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

I like to do the NY and LA Times puzzles and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Manny Nosowsky, with his ear for idioms, colloquialisms, and similar word sounds and awesome clueing, is of course the very best. And who didn’t admire Dan Naddor’s incredible ability to construct grids with such high theme content PLUS great fill. Some puzzles still resonate for me e.g. Peter Collins’ “Three-l llama puzzle” and Nancy Salomon/Harvey Estes’ “Tarzan” puzzle. But my favorite constructors are Cox and Rathvon, because my favorite type of puzzle is the cryptic puzzle. I’ve done just about every one of their Atlantic puzzles over the decades. With cryptics, the emphasis is on wordplay and less on information that one might or might now know. And no need for much structural crosswordese.

Besides crosswords, what else do you do for fun?

I spend part of the winter on Sanibel Island, where I fish a lot, golf a little, garden, and volunteer with the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge. For the past twenty years I’ve enjoyed birding as well as carving birds and decoys. And of course the most fun is being with my wife and dog and as often as I can my three children and one grandchild.

6 comments:

Dennis said...

I was very happy to see an interview with Ed - he's been a favorite, and like C.C., I rank 'Rain Cats and Dogs' as one of my all-time most enjoyable puzzles.

I can't imagine having a full-time job, especially a doctor, and having time to constantly pump out puzzles. Hell, I have a hard enough time posting a quick paragraph or two each morning, talking about someone else's work. Our constructors will always have my admiration for their skills and productivity.

I liked Ed's explanation about working between the extremes - that always seemed to me like it would be one of the toughest problems with constructing. And it's always fun to hear about where a constructor's inspiration comes from; so often it seems like it's just 'situational awareness' -- just seeing and hearing what's going on around you.

Notice how often we see Nancy Salomon's name? She must be an amazing lady, and obviously a great mentor.

A wonderful interview; thanks, Ed and C.C.

HeartRx said...

Thank you for the great interview, C.C. It was really interesting to me that he is in medicine and had a classical Catholic education, since we don't see many obscure scientific, Greek or Latin answers in Ed's puzzles. I'm sure it would be tempting to use them, but thankfully, he refrains and always gives us great fill!

And I had to chuckle over how he worked on his "Do be do be do" theme by singing it over and over to his poor wife. I want to thank her for putting up with it, because I really enjoyed the end result of that one!

MJ said...

Thank you, C.C., for another terrific interview. Your interviews with constructors and getting an insight into their constructing process and inspiration for their puzzles is one of the highlights of your blog for me.

Ed, thank you, as well, for taking the time to respond. I always find your puzzles very creative, and a lot of fun to solve!

Anonymous said...

"That’s where a good editor steps in to troubleshoot themes, fills, and clues. " Mr Ed - fill.

Abejo said...

Very interesting to read this interview. I have been doing crossword puzzles for many years and have never, until recently, even taken notice of who has constructed them. Negligent on my part. I have changed my ways.

It is interesting to see what motivates people to focus on constructing a crossword puzzle. I am impressed
with the dedication that Ed Sessa, and many others, display. That is really what it is. Dedication! Congratulations, Ed!

Abejo

Puzzled said...

Thank you, Ed Sessa, for your unique insights into a crossword's construction. One of the best interviews here.