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Feb 11, 2011

Interview with James Sajdak

Some constructors specialize in earlier week puzzles, some focuses on themeless. James Sajdak is one of the very few who have delighted us with both. I always like James's grid layouts because they often feature long, lively non-theme entries.

James only started construction in 2005, but he has been published by LA Times, NY Sun, NY Times. 


Hope you enjoy this nugget-filled interview. I certainly did.

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

I remember watching my father solve the Chicago Daily News puzzle after dinner (pen solver) back in the 1960s. During college, a couple of friends and I did the Chicago Tribune puzzle in the Student Union every morning before classes. My wife Kathy and I moved to Canada where we got busy raising a family, a big garden and chickens. Puzzles, except for the Sunday NY Times puzzle, were put on the back burner. After we moved back to our Midwest roots, I returned to the UW Madison, got a degree in English linguistics and began teaching English as a Second Language in Madison, Wisconsin. I got bit again by the puzzle bug in the ‘90s and in 2005 I felt an urge to try to make a puzzles of my own. My first two were published by Wayne Williams, then I was lucky enough to work with editor Peter Gordon, who shepherded me through an A, E, I, O, U puzzle and I was hooked. Peter, and then Rich Norris, taught me much about theme selection and constructing that I was unaware of. I thank them dearly. They each have their own editorial hand and both gave me an education into what goes into a well-crafted crossword.

How would you describe your puzzle style? I noticed that your grids often feature plenty of long non-theme answers.

Longer fill generally makes for a good puzzle. It opens up the grid so solvers don’t get stuck in a corner that has only one way in, usually through a theme entry. Secondly, longer entries offer many more options in selecting colorful words and phrases that evoke amusing, bizarre or endearing pictures in the mind. The short stuff is limited, so you end up with a lot of unwelcome abbreviations and crosswordese. Of course, as a constructor, I’ve sometimes bitten the bullet and used a less than desirable entry to aid in making the rest of the puzzle better.

Style-wise, I feel like I’m pretty open to anything, but I like feel-good, fun puzzles. For example, BABY GRAND, SWEETHEART DEAL, HONEY TREE, and SUGAR PLUM FAIRY. I love a good love theme and dislike war references. I make a conscious effort to avoid things like A TEST, N TEST, DESERT STORM and other militaristic references.

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

 
Theme brainstorming is always a catch-as-catch-can affair. I might go a month without a clever theme idea. Then, in a week, I might come up with a couple of sparkly ideas. I have notebooks and scraps of paper with half-finished, or half-baked, theme ideas. They come from everywhere, but I don’t generally use reference books in adding to my “seed” theme entries. The most in-the-language theme entries come from things I hear, see or read as I go through the day.

Coming up with a decent grid can be a bear when I have a large number of theme letters in a puzzle. And making an acceptable grid for an eight or ten theme Sunday puzzle can be murder.

Cluing, for me, is the most creative part of the whole process. A good mix of straight, humorous, gimme (you’ve got have a way in) and ornery clues is what I like in puzzles I solve. That’s what I strive for when I write clues.
 

You've been constructing both themed and themeless puzzles. Which ones do you enjoy more? And what are the major differences in your approach?

For me, a cool theme is hard to beat and challenges me to place theme entries just-so to allow for a smooth grid. Cluing theme entries is the most satisfying part of constructing. I try to make myself laugh, a first step to making editors and solvers laugh too.

I will often work on a themeless puzzle when the theme muse is busy elsewhere (other contructors?). I keep a list of eight- to fifteen-letter special phrases I have encountered, especially those with a scrabbly quality. I’m not a master of the low word count themeless puzzles or stacked 15 letter entries. When I do a themeless, I try to remember that the whole puzzle is fill, so I’m always looking for colorful shorter fill as well. There’s not going to be any humor added by a set of related theme entries, so the amusement must come from all the entries. I have done a couple of themeless puzzles with “mini-themes,” (GIRL FROM IPANEMA, TOWN WITHOUT PITY, for example, with two balancing song titles) and I like these hybrid types.


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

As I said, I try to avoid reference books when I’m coming up with theme entries, since it adds some iffy stuff to my possibilities and takes my mind out of the language as we speak and hear it. Once I do have theme entries, I look for Google hits and check Cruciverb.com website for previous usage. Cruciverb.com is a great site to see if a theme idea has already been done. Google is also good to find some lesser known fact to use in a clue (crosswords as an educational tool.) I use Wikipedia only for broad overviews of a topic or entry.

My go-to dictionary is Random House Unabridged. I also love to dig into my atlas to find geographical names to create alliterative clues. (Barcelona bloom) FLOR.

I read blogs like yours and Amy Reynaldo’s to see how my and fellow constructor’s puzzles are received by our audience. That can be either an ego-boosting or humbling experience, but I think it keeps me from being complacent in making puzzles.


You've been quite prolific since you had your first puzzle with the NY Sun in 2006. Where do you find your theme inspirations and how do you maintain such productivity and originality?
 
Prolific, perhaps, but names like Patrick Berry, Dan Naddor and lately, John Lampkin pop up so frequently that I can’t think of myself as particularly prolific. Theme inspirations may visit anytime and anyplace, and, when they do I gather them in.

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

I solve the LAT and NYT every day. On Sunday, I might also try Merl Reagle or the Boston Globe, but that’s a lot of boxes to fill in. I also really like what Patrick Berry is doing in his Friday Chronicle of Higher Education puzzles. I probably solve about 15 to 20 puzzles a week. I am not a speed solver, to say the least.

As for constructors, Patrick Berry has a combination of innovative theme ideas, constructing skill and precision in cluing that’s hard to beat. I like Joe DiPietro and have admired his clever style for many years. Bob Klahn’s clues are to die (laughing) for. Liz Gorski’s grid ideas are out of this world. There are another dozen or more constructors, both those who have been creating for many years and the new generation, that I really admire and would like to emulate.

Besides crosswords, what else do you do for fun?

We’re outdoorsy types. My wife Kathy and I do a lot of hiking and biking. We’re birders, snorkelers, and we’ve even tried snowshoeing (after all, we live in Wisconsin.) Reading, of course, is a big part of our leisure time (after all, we live in Wisconsin—long winters!) I listen to a lot of music, don’t watch much TV.

Finding laughs in everyday life, bizarre news stories and even on the mainstream news is an ongoing goal in my life. Humor is a healing force in our tough times and, I hope, in my puzzles.

Thanks for the opportunity to share my philosophy of constructing (and life) on your blog.

8 comments:

Dennis said...

Fascinating interview. Like many of us, James also got his introduction to crosswords from watching his father do them (mine did them in ink also). His themes are always clever, and his puzzles full of misdirection. I really like his style, although he lost me a bit with his aversion to anything "militaristic".

C.C., James, thanks for another insightful, educational interview.

HeartRx said...

Thanks for this interview, C.C. It was another enjoyable diversion this morning. James Sajdak's puzzles are always entertaining, and I usually get a few grins out of them. He did one a while ago with "Slapstick comedy" as a theme, and it was lots of fun. Thanks for letting us inside the head of this creative guy!

creature said...

C.C., Thanks for your delightful and informative interview.

Your questions and James Sajdak's reponses reflected the fun puzzle I had just worked. It is always special for me to feel that I was on the constructor's wave length, and it was reinforced. Thanks to both of you.

Mainiac said...

CC and James,

Like fathers, like sons seems to be a common theme. I can add my mother in there as well. My parents are both avid readers which helps them tremendously as solvers. I hope to catch up on my reading when the day to day pace eases up.

Great interview again. Thanks.

MJ said...

Thanks, C.C., for yet another insightful interview. And thank you, James Sajdak, for taking the time to respond. It's always interesting to hear from the constructors as to their inspirations and muses.

Fun theme in the puzzle today. I especially liked the double-D in DEAR TO DEAR GRINS.

Lemonade714 said...

We add another insider to the corner, who is creative and thoughtful. Thank you both

Jerry said...

Your clues are too far out.

Larry said...

James,

I share your disdain for the US Anti Doping Agency as duly noted in todays 8\26 blog for the LA Tiimes Crossword Puzzle. Lance won seven despite what the USADA says or does.

Larry Vroom