Sep 30, 2011

Interview with David Poole

We've covered 7 of David Poole's puzzles on this blog. From H dropping A, E, I, O, U starting cockney gimmick to the humorous re-interpretation of Wall Street phrases last month, all of his grids have a different theme type with a distinctive flavor. He is another constructor who constantly strives for originality and entertainment.

I had lots of fun with his NY Times' ACRONYM puzzle: URL is spelled out as YOU ARE ELLE? ("Supermodel Macpherson, I presume?"). KGB becomes CAGEY BEE! ("Sly insect!"). Awe-inspiring!

David only started constructing in 2008, but he has already had 11 puzzles by the LA Times and NY Times. Amazing record. I asked David a few questions, and was so pleased that he took time answering them.

What's the inspiration for this puzzle and what were the other theme entries you considered but failed to make the cut?

The seed for this puzzle actually failed to make the cut. It was FRAGRANT FOUL clued as [Wearing perfume in a scent-free workplace, e.g.?], which I like a lot. Unfortunately, the trailing L fails to be converted into an R, which makes it inconsistent with the theme. So, as is often the case, a lesser entry was needed - in this case, FRAT SCREEN TV. C’est la vie!

Tell us a bit about your background. How did you get into crossword construction?

I’m a mathematician and, like most mathematicians, I enjoy puzzles and anything that involves lateral thinking. However, I don’t have a strong background in any of the other sciences. I think of myself as a humanist dressed up as a scientist. My other interests are art history, film, sports, and pop culture, all of which inform my crosswords.

I have solved crosswords since I was a teenager but only got serious about them a few years ago. People frequently gave me crossword compilations as presents but, after receiving an NYT book for Christmas in 2008, my wife suggested that I try constructing puzzles. After pooh-poohing the idea, I realized that she was right (as is usually the case): Why not try constructing?

My first few submissions were to to Peter Gordon at the New York Sun (just before it folded). Unfortunately, he rejected all of them, doing little to help my self-esteem as a constructor. (Looking back on those puzzles, I would now reject them too, with one exception.) My first accepted puzzle was by Rich Norris at the LAT. He was looking for a Monday-level puzzle and he liked one I had submitted. It appeared on June 8, 2009, within a month of acceptance! Since then I’ve had nine other puzzles appear, four more in the LAT and four in the NYT. More are in the pipeline. Both Rich and Will are fantastic editors and have been a joy to work with.

I have benefited immensely from Nancy Salomon’s advice. In the early days, I routinely ran puzzles by Nancy and she was unselfish and unflinching with her comments. Along with many others, I owe her an immense debt of gratitude. I still seek her advice – although less often – but she is always willing to help. The cruciverb-l listserve is also an incredible source of support. Thanks, Kevin, for setting it up and thanks to the wonderful community that inhabits that list.

How would you describe your style? Wordplay and puns seem to be featured prominently in your grids. Loved your YOU ARE ELLE? puzzle.

Thanks for the love on my YOU ARE ELLE puzzle. That’s one of my favorites. I do like wordplay and always have. I remember that when I was a kid - probably about 10 years old - my local newspaper ran a contest in which place names were hidden in a cartoon, cryptic style. For example, a cartoon showing a factory supervisor (BOSS) and a 2000 lb. weight (TON) might clue BOSTON. Today, I would have major problems with the way the answers were clued but, as a kid, I loved it! So much so that I decided to devise my own versions of contest entries, just for fun. Of course, my immediate family members were the main victims beneficiaries of my efforts.

Puns are fun too but I use them sparingly as theme entries. I’m quite happy to let Merl Reagle look after that! I’m not fond of quote themes either (unless they are really sparkly) or “word that can precede/follow the starts/ends of ...” themes. I imagine that at some point I will do one of these but I’m in no rush. I love rebus puzzles and would love to create an acceptable one some day but, thus far, none of my efforts in this direction have panned out. I also enjoy themeless puzzles but I haven’t tried constructing one yet.

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

I’d have to say that my time is spent in decreasing order on the three items you list. I love coming up with (hopefully) interesting themes. I also try to take time to get a good grid with solid secondary fill. As for the clues, that’s my least favorite part of the process but I strive to get at least 20% of my clues to be fresh. Of course, many clues get changed in the editing process but I’m always happy when the editor leaves my clues alone.

What is the most memorable puzzle you've made and why is it special to you?

My favorite puzzle is my “cockney-themed” LAT puzzle (May 28, 2010). It was challenging to construct but the theme is the tightest I’ve ever done: The phrases that result from dropping an H begin with A, E, I, O, U, in order in the grid - that was very nice! Rich Norris, as always, was very helpful in suggesting improvements to my original submission. The YOU ARE ELLE puzzle mentioned above is also special as it was one of the first NYT submissions of mine that Will Shortz accepted. Both of these puzzles are especially satisfying since, as far as I know, the themes are unique.

What puzzles do you solve every day and which constructors consistently inspire you?

I do the NYT, LAT, and CrosSynergy puzzles every day, along with the cryptic crossword in my local paper, the Toronto Globe & Mail – especially the Saturday cryptic by the estimable Fraser Simpson.

Otherwise, I love Matt Gaffney’s puzzles and, when I see his byline, I know I’m in for a treat. In addition to his syndicated puzzles, he has his weekly crossword contest which is a constant source of enjoyment/torture. I honestly don’t know how he does it, week after week. Liz Gorski’s Sunday rebus puzzles are classics! I enjoy the playfulness that she exhibits in everything she does. For fresh and fun clues, no one does it better than Bob Klahn. If you want to learn up-to-the-minute pop culture, start doing Brendan Emmett Quigley’s puzzles. He’s taught me about bands that I never knew existed and jargon that I’d never heard before (much of which doesn’t pass the “breakfast test,” but who cares?). He’s also a master of incorporating lively phrases into a puzzle. Among other constructors that I admire are Nancy Salomon, Patrick Berry, Tony Orbach, joon pahk, and the late Dan Naddor.

I know I’m overlooking many others but there are so many outstanding constructors out there it’s hard to acknowledge them all individually. All I can say is, “You are all a constant source of inspiration to me. Thanks!”

Besides crosswords, what are your other interests?

I enjoy reading, hiking, gourmet cooking, and I’m an avid film buff. In my professional life, I’ve written a math textbook and I’d like to think that some of my cruciverbalist interests have crept into it. For example, it includes notes on the etymology of technical terms, historical notes, and quotations - items that many math books eschew.


Anonymous said...

Nicely done, David! The puzzle today kicked my butt.

Mike said...

@ David - Thank you for sharing with us. Very informative interview.