, pub-2774194725043577, DIRECT, f08c47fec0942fa0 L.A.Times Crossword Corner: Interview with Joon Pahk


Mar 29, 2011

Interview with Joon Pahk

This is our 4th meeting with Joon Pahk and first encounter with his collaborator, Andrea Carla Michaels, an excellent constructor who specializes in early week puzzles.

Joon's previous three LA Times all had distinctive style: a Sunday with a rarely-seen  four letter  FORE insertion, a Friday with a scrabbly ZZ insertion and a Saturday themeless with a unique grid design and a SIX-PACK ABS start. Today's SIX PACKS is another tour-de-force, we don't often have 7 theme entries in a 15*15 grid.

Joon only started constructing in 2008, but he has had ten puzzles published by the NY Times alone.  His byline also appeared in the NY Sun, Newsday (Saturday Stumper), Wall Street Journal and the Chronicle of Higher Education. He is also an excellent speed solver, finishing 15th in this year's ACPT.
Joon's wide-ranging knowledge base (from baseball to Norse myth to physics) and always original cluing   make his puzzles a bit challenging at times. I hope this interview gives us a closer look at his brain and helps us better tackle his puzzles in the future.

What is your background and how does it influence your puzzle style?

i teach physics to undergrads for a living, so certainly part of my background is that i'm a quantitative thinker. but i'm also something of a polymath (although it sounds terribly immodest when i say that about myself, doesn't it?). i used to do academic trivia in college, and i loved questions about literature, mythology, philosophy, religion, and art in addition to science questions that were more in my obvious wheelhouse. so especially for late-week puzzles, i like to include names and titles from all those areas. i'm not very old (although i can no longer really call myself young), and i have a long-standing aversion to pop culture from "before my time," because it reinforces the stereotype that crosswords are for old people. so i try to keep that to a minimum, too. i'm also a big sports fan, especially soccer, basketball, and football.

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

i guess about half the puzzles i construct are themeless, maybe because good theme ideas don't occur to me that often... and when they do, i typically need somebody else's help to hammer them into a workable form. gridding is fast. cluing is slow. it can be glacially slow for a tough late-week puzzle. i read your interview with bob klahn and it had a profound effect on me. so i almost always take at least a week to mull over appropriately tough clues. writing easier clues is faster, although not fast. even so, it's happened to me twice now that i've sent off a puzzle and then, weeks later, thought of a really great clue for one of the entries. it happened to me in the LAT with WHIZ KID, which i'd originally clued as something boring like {National Merit Scholar, e.g.}. when {Brain child?} occurred to me out of the blue, i emailed rich with the clue and he kindly put it in. so not only is cluing slow, it's sometimes not even done when i've sent them all in!

Once you are set with your theme entries, how much time do you normally spend on grid design? And what are your criteria for a perfect grid?

not too long, unless it's a very dense theme. i recently gridded a puzzle with seven theme answers, and that one definitely took some tinkering. but for a more normal four or five theme answers, i just kind of drop them into the usual places, place blocks around them heuristically, and start to fill. i always check to see if i can get some of the theme answers to intersect, because i like it when that happens. but actually, it's never happened for me! maybe i should just stop checking.

i don't think there's any such thing as a "perfect" grid. everything is dictated by the constraints of the theme (or, if i'm doing a themeless, how ambitious i'm trying to be about word count or open space). i try to avoid partials in late-week puzzles. i really don't like abbreviations, although familiar acronyms are fine. i shy away from prefixes and suffixes, variant spellings, awkward plurals, weird foreign words... you know, all the stuff solvers don't like. but pretty much everything needs to be evaluated in the context of the whole puzzle. in an easy puzzle, i don't mind a partial or two. in a themeless, i've been known to resort to crappy short fill to get the long stuff to really sing, although i'm trying to do that less these days.

I love the freshness of your clues. How do you maintain such originality and creativity? Do you have Xword Info or other databases open while cluing or do you only consult the database once you are done with yours?

thanks! as i mentioned earlier: i spend a lot of time on cluing. as a solver, i've found that even puzzles with blah themes and fill can be fun to do if the clues are lively, so when i construct, i pay special attention to cluing in the hopes that it will draw attention away from the flaws in my theme or fill. word association is the key, i guess. since i'm a trivia buff, sometimes word association will lead me to clue an ordinary word in reference to a work of literature or historical event. that way even if you don't know the trivia, you can learn something cool. but most clues aren't trivia clues, of course.

i do use the databases, but more to figure out what's already been done that i need to avoid, or at least put a new spin on.

one thing that i've never heard anybody else talk about (though surely i'm not the only constructor who does this?) is that i'm constantly on the lookout for great clues, even when i'm not actively cluing anything. i try to think of different (often literal) ways to interpret idiomatic expressions, and then consider what word they might be used to clue. if it's memorable enough, the next time i have to clue that word, i've got the perfect clue. (if i were more organized, i'd write these down.)

sometimes i'll even seed a themeless with one of these clues (instead of with a really fresh or scrabbly answer). a while back i realized that {Make believe} could be interpreted to mean CONVINCE, as in, "i will make (you) believe that something is true," so i built that into a themeless and clued it that way. sadly, when it ran, the clue had been changed, so i'm still waiting to use that one.

What's the best puzzle you've made and why?

sadly, it was a puzzle that very few people got to do: a friday new york sun puzzle that didn't make it to print before that newspaper folded. so editor peter gordon published it to the subscriber-only "sun crosswords" on feb 6, 2009. anyway, it was a very, very hard themed puzzle called  "transmutation." it's since been published in a book, i think (sunset crosswords by peter gordon). anyway, this is the one where i felt that the theme, fill, and clues all came together magically. actually, it wasn't magic at all, but a really productive collaboration with peter.

Who are the constructors who consistently impress and inspire you?

patrick berry is #1 with a bullet. i haven't seen quite as many of his mind-bending original themes in the past couple of years, but the variety puzzles he devises for the wall street journal (and his own book, puzzle masterpieces) are mind-bogglingly brilliant. and his themeless grids are to die for! he can whip up a 64-word grid with fill so clean you could eat off it: no abbreviations, no partials, no obscurities. i've never tried a 64, but i can do a 66... but there's invariably some crappy stuff holding at all together. i've done a squeaky-clean themeless, but it was a 72 without much pizzazz. long story short, i'm no patrick berry. he's a great editor, too; i've been very happy with the puzzles i've done with him for the chronicle of higher education.

i've got a few other favorites, but i'd be remiss not to mention BEQ. brendan and i talk about puzzles almost every day, and he'll often look over a grid or vet a theme idea for me. (i return the favor by test-solving his blog puzzles.) his style is inimitable, so i don't even try, but his advice has really helped me become a better constructor.

Besides crosswords, what are your other hobbies?

i burn through hobbies very intensely, but usually for only a few months or a year. so i have far more ex-hobbies (ping pong, speed chess, foosball, academic trivia, video games, poker, fantasy baseball) than current hobbies. i guess i still play duplicate bridge and board games, although not to the (globe-trotting) extent that i once did. anyway, crosswords have been at the top of the list since january 2008, but there are no signs of abatement yet.


Lemonade714 said...

C.C. thank you once again. As long as puzzle construction continues to attract and keep interesting and intelligent young men like Joon, we have much to look foward to enjoying in the future. It also is encouraging that at least in this little corner of the world, cooperation and respect among the constructors prevails.

HeartRx said...

Wonderful interview, C.C. I love to hear what goes through constructors' minds, and how they each tackle puzzles in very different ways. It was interesting to learn that Joon sometimes will build an entire puzzle around a lively clue! Thanks for giving us insight in this talented cruciverbalist!

Anonymous said...

Joon's nickname is Squirrel of Discord.

Abejo said...

c.c. I found this interview most inyeresting. Thank You. Sounds like Mr Pahk is a very busy man. I bet his brain goes a hundred miles an hour. Looking forward to more of his puzzles. I liked today's.


kazie said...

C.C. and Joon,
Thanks for a wonderful interview. I would guess Joon suffers(?) from ADD, but has put it to great use. I wish my brain could embrace as much as his. The interview was a real window into the workings of his mind.

creature said...

C.C. Very enlightening interview. You covered so much; I will be referring to this as often as we have Joon's work.
His broad knowledge and puzzle savy are very impressive- I would even think rare. Thank you, for bringing him to our attention.

thehondohurricane said...


A very interesting interview. So much goes into constructing a puzzle that I never knew until joining this blog. I look forward to more of Joon's offerings in the future.

What I found a bit curious though was him mentioning things he likes to avoid such as awkward plurals. If that be the case, what is "rares" in todays puzzle, if not awkward?

Gareth Bain said...

Thanks for the insightful interview! BTW, that "Transmutation" puzzle is still one of my alltime faves!

Anonymous said...

What is a partial?

Joon said...

i vaguely remember doing this interview, but i had completely forgotten about it before popping in here today and seeing it. some curious coincidences here; SIX-PACK ABS was 1-across in my previous LAT themeless, and today it's the theme! i don't really spend all my time thinking about six-packs.

also, the part where i said "i recently gridded a puzzle with seven theme answers, and that one definitely took some tinkering" refers, i'm quite sure, to today's grid, although i had no idea at the time that it would be the puzzle to run with this interview. it's kind of embarrassing that i went on at length about all the kinds of fill i don't like: odd abbreviations (WGT), partials (A PET), awkward plurals (RARES), prefixes (OSTEO-) and suffixes (-IER), and yet here they all are. oh well--hopefully for most solvers, the theme justified some fill concessions.

Jazzbumpa said...

Joon -

While each of the things you mention can be A PET, an otherwise great puzzle justifies all sorts of minor peeves.

It's all about context. If the puzzle is mostly dross, then the solving experience isn't much fun.

But a great theme, sparkling fill and clever, original cluing MAKE BELIEVERS out of us.

Nice interview, great puzzle.


Chickie said...

Thanks for a wonderful interview with Joon Pahk. He really is a very diversified person, who has a knowledge in a large number of areas.

He must go a mile a minute on whatever he is doing at the time.

I'm looking forward to many more puzzles from him in the future.

Elizabeth said...

Can someone remind me: What was the video game that Joon Pahk said he quit his job to play non-stop? Thanks.

Argyle said...

it's The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Nintendo