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Oct 6, 2011

Interview with Peter A. Collins

Peter A. Collins delighted many of us with this fish puzzle in May 2011. A fish appears when when you connect the circled letters in alphabetical order, and the only four letter O's in the grid form TINY BUBBLES coming from the fish's mouth. It's one of the many innovative and unconventional puzzles Pete created for the LA Times and NY Times.

Pete started constructing puzzle in 2006. He has had 53 puzzles published by the NY Times, 7 by LA Times and a few by
the NY Sun, The Chronicle of Higher Education, USA Today and Peter Gordon's Fireball Crosswords.

I hope you enjoy his answers as much as I did. And a big "Thank you" to Joe Krozel for making this interview possible.

What's the inspiration for this theme and what were the other candidates you also considered for the hidden element?

I think (it's been a while) I got the idea for this theme while I was tinkering around with an "alchemy" themed puzzle that eventually ran in the New York Times (8/10/2010). In that puzzle I turned LEAD into GOLD through a word ladder. I noticed that both lead and gold were fairly short words that seemed to lend themselves to be hidden in other expressions. That got me thinking about other elements and their hide-ability. Of course, so many of them have long/bizarre names, they weren't practical. I wanted the hidden elements to be interior, so something like CAR BONNET (CARBON) was out. I also wanted the elements to span multiple words, so something like STINGY (TIN) was out. When I realized SURPRISE ELEMENT was exactly fifteen letters long and aptly described the theme, I decided to go for it.

Where were the trouble spots for you in the gridding and filling process? Overlapping of theme entries is always challenging.

Yes, I was happy that I got the upper and lower pairs of themed entries to overlap for six letters (I really like it when themed entries run perpendicularly to one another and intersect, but that's usually impossible). Sometimes in a situation like this, the fill can get a bit strained, but overall in this puzzle, I don't think it was too bad (ESOS and NTSB are a bit unfortunate, though). When I have parallel themed entries as in this puzzle, I usually try to fill the longer entries that intersect two (or three) themed entries first. Giving the longer entries as much zip as possible is important. In this puzzle, I really liked BATTLE CREEK. Almost everyone has heard of it, and it's where I went to high school -- Go Bearcats!

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

I'm a high school math teacher in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I came to Ann Arbor (from Battle Creek) as an undergraduate student and never left. I also teach at the University of Michigan in the summers. My wife (a fellow Wolverine) and I have four daughters -- two are in town here at the University of Michigan, and two are still in high school.

After having been a casual solver for many decades, I eventually got into a routine of doing the LA Times and/or NY Times puzzle on a fairly regular basis. Eventually I stumbled upon Will Shortz's book of favorite puzzles, and I was blown away by the creativity I saw. I thought "I've got to try this". It's been a great creative release for me ever since.

Before I started constructing, I remember having seen BLING in a puzzle. I was both thrilled ("That is so cool!") and confused ("Wait -- that's not a real word!"). I think that moment was some kind of an epiphany for me.

How would you describe your puzzle style? What kind of themes/fill interest you the most and what kind do you try to avoid in your grids?

For me, a novel or ingenious theme is worth the trade-off for a little less-than-stellar fill. I really am not fond of the type of puzzles where, for instance, every first word in several phrases can precede another word. Even add-a-letter/drop-a-letter themes can seem pretty tired, unless they're really well done. If you look back at all the puzzles I've had published, I'd like to think there is a great variety in terms of theme choice. If you had to pick one recurring type, it just might be the kind of hidden word theme as seen in this puzzle.

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

I did a Beatles-themed rebus puzzle in the New York Times (5/18/2006). It was actually my second published puzzle in the NY Times, but I wrote it before my first puzzle was published, so I was really a beginner. I did it with pencil (and a lot of erasing) on graph paper, with no high-tech help. I put many hours into that thing, and since at the point in time I was unpublished, I think my wife thought I'd lost my marbles. When Will Shortz accepted it, he said some very complimentary things, which really gave me the encouragement to keep going as a constructor.

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

I really only have time to do one puzzle a day -- but sometimes I do more than one anyway. Usually the New York Times or the LA Times. I also like Peter Gordon's Fireball puzzles. I'm still not an expert solver. I can often hack my way trough a Friday, and the occasional Saturday, but I am by no means a speed-solver. I've never been to the ACPT, but I hope to go some day. I rarely do Sunday puzzles due to the time commitment, but I like to keep up with their themes by reading the blogs.

I think Patrick Berry is amazing with the smoothness and quality of his fill. Joe Krozel (with whom I often collaborate) is definitely on my wavelength in terms of liking off-beat themes (in addition to his clever themeless puzzles). I like Mike Nothnagel and David Quarfoot's themeless puzzles. Elizabeth Gorski has done some really nice picture-in-grid stuff that I am often drawn to myself, too. There also seem to be a lot of clever young constructors coming up. That's good to see.

Besides crosswords, what are your other hobbies?

I still play soccer and volleyball competitively. I run a bit, and ride my bike to work when the whether permits. I read, I juggle, and I like to follow the Detroit and U-Mich sports teams. As I write this, the Tigers are beating the Yankees!

3 comments:

Lemonade714 said...

Thank you Mr. Collins and C.C. It is always a treat to get to know the ones who entertain and exasperate us, and I find Peter's puzzles to be a fun work out, in keeping with a man who has four daughters and still has time for competitive sports.

Chickie said...

Thank you C.C. and Peter Collins for a great interview.

Anyone who can work full time, raise a family and still have time to construct great Crossword puzzles has my admiration.

Sarah said...

Thank for this interview, being an almost finished undergraduate student who has only started doing the LA times daily, (I have been obsessed since I picked up my first one) I really appreciate hearing about how these puzzles, which make my day so enjoyable, are done.