Apr 8, 2012

Interview with Steven J. St. John

This is our 4th puzzle from Steven J. St. John. All his previous LA Times creations fell on Tuesdays, all with light and fun themes: from "Airline inconvenience", to "The King", to the last scrabbly "HIDDEN GEMS" with amazing theme entry intersections.

As many of you do, I always enjoy reading Steve's theme inspiration and original clues. And I hope this interview will give you a better understanding of his mind set.
What's the inspiration for this puzzle and what are the other theme entries you considered but failed to make the cut?
Looking back at my notebook, I think RAISIN DETRE was the first entry I came up with. I really liked the clue – Grape in the sun? The translated answer “Raisin to be” gives a laugh (hopefully) only after you unpack two layers – the bad translation and the life history of a raisin. I was able to brainstorm most of the other entries pretty quickly. They were all under 15-letters, so I had to decide if I wanted to take my best 4-5 and make a daily puzzle, or “go for it” and try for a Sunday.
My notebook has 11 theme answers, but I couldn’t “pair off” all of them (if you have one 8-letter answer, you need another to fit in the opposite part of the grid). So I liked, but couldn’t use PADEDEUX (Father of two?). Likewise, I had no match for MALDEMARE (Horse sickness?). With a 9-letter answer like MALDEMARE you can sometimes use it without a pair in the center of the grid, but I also had 3 11-letter entries and I wanted to save the center for one of those.
So from my initial list, I only had 9 entries I could use, and because all of the entries were fairly short (10-13 letters), I figured I needed to use all of them. That’s an uncomfortably thin margin when working a Sunday – and add to that I had never submitted a Sunday before. Imagine my surprise then when I was not only able to fill the puzzle, but that the puzzle seemed, to my eyes, to have very few iffy words (one, ADENITIS, Rich Norris would later edit out, to my appreciation). I thought it was a bit miraculous that I could fill the puzzle with no extra theme entries to spare.
Then, a couple of days later, I made a very disappointing discovery! As I started to write clues, I realized that I had somehow completely overlooked the fact that I had used two theme entries that played off of the same French root: LAISSEZFARE (Cabby gives a free ride?) in the center and SAVOIRFAIR (Mensa event?). I was stunned at my stupidity! Even though the puns are different in each case, I was pretty sure no editor would let me milk the same root word twice. Plus I knew that I had already been on every “French phrases used in English” internet list site there was and had zero acceptable ones left.
A few days later I took what I assumed to be the last look at the puzzle. It’s an unusual grid: 3 theme answers are partly stacked in the middle. (One of those, LAISSEZFARE, was one of the words that killed the puzzle, and since it was in the center there was no hope of replacing it.) Because the theme answers are also short, it occurred to me that maybe I could extract SAVOIRFAIR in the NE and save the rest of the puzzle – presuming I could come up with an alternative that happened to be 10 letters long and whose first letter makes sense with the last letter in ESPRITDECORE. I honestly don’t know where TRUMPLOEIL came from – it’s a term I first heard because my wife is a talented painter – but it struck me as a funny entry (especially with Trump all over the news – he was musing about running for President at the time) and it had some pretty friendly letters. I never in my wildest hopes thought I’d get JUJUBES and JAILCELL out of it – to think that a last-minute desperate hope theme entry actually improved the fill was just too lucky.

What's your background? What prompted you to make your first crossword?
I’m a physiological psychologist/neurobiologist. I used to do the crossword every day in my college newspaper, and later I tried to make several by hand. I found some of those first ones not long ago, and the only ones I ever completed apparently were those that broke the rules (e.g., had two letter words).
I was always more interested in making games than playing them. I spent hours as a kid making sports simulation games. In school I programmed (in BASIC and later Visual Basic) a computerized version of Yahtzee, I sent word-searches to friends in letters, I “modded” computer games like Civilization, I was the “Dungeon Master” in D&D. I used to spend days making golf courses (rather than playing them) in the Tiger Woods golf game by EA Sports.
Which part do you normally spend the most time on in the construction process: theme brainstorming, gridding or cluing?
I’m not good at generating themes. I’m trying to get better and cleverer. I think today’s puzzle is an example of where I got a bit lucky. But this is a hard question to answer because those 3 components are so different. Cluing takes a set amount of time: you’ve got about 76 words (or, for a Sunday, 140 words) you have to write clues for. It’s very rewarding to come up with a really clever clue (from a rejected puzzle of mine: DEFROSTED: Took out for dinner?), and sometimes you’ll work really hard to get some fresh clues. But it doesn’t pay to do that for all 76 words because no one would publish a puzzle that’s all misdirection like that. Also, it can be fun as a constructor to tie in the words with one another, but too much cross-referencing (Son of 24-Across) gets really annoying for the solver. So cluing takes as long as it takes – you can’t get it done faster and there’s not much profit in over-thinking it.
Gridding on the other hand can take an hour (with a computer program assisting you, of course) or weeks. If you really like a theme but have some tough letters or constraints, you may try every combination under the sun to get it to work for you. On my hard drive I have a Working Folder, and there are some puzzles that have been in there for months waiting for me to find the right combination of black squares and the right order of theme entries. Others move from the Working Folder to the Submitted Folder on the same day (or next day – I make sure to have a “cooling off period” before submitting a completed puzzle).
As for theme brainstorming, that has two parts: the jot down the idea part, which takes about 15 minutes (just enough to ensure it deserves wasting one piece of paper) and the let’s get serious and cover all the basis part, which for a linear thinker like me, can take a long time and end with disappointing results!

How does constructing change your solving experience? And what kind of themes/fill fascinate you as a solver?
I solve now with a purpose beyond just enjoying myself. I’m looking for inspiration – great words, clever ideas. If you’ve ever started a puzzle and thought you guessed the theme and then it turned out the theme was going somewhere else – well, I’m hoping for that kind of mistake. Because then maybe I can use the theme I thought of while solving!
I’m definitely most impressed by themes or ideas I know I never would have thought of, or would have thought of but never would have tried to execute because I was sure it was too hard to pull off. I love astronomy, and I could imagine coming up with the idea of hiding the names of the planets in phrases, but I never could in a million years imagine myself pulling off the planetary orbits puzzle that Patrick Berry put in my Sunday paper one day in 2008 (http://www.xwordinfo.com/Crossword?date=12/28/2008).
I tend to be most-impressed with pun themes that make me laugh, because in my brainstorming of theme ideas, that tends to be where I’m weakest. Again, today’s puzzle feels like a lucky break given my tendencies.
What puzzles do you solve every day and which constructors do you find most inspiring?
My paper, the Orlando Sentinel, prints the LA Times puzzle Monday through Saturday, so I do those every day. For some reason it does not print the Sunday LA puzzle, but prints the NY Times Sunday puzzle (2 weeks out of date) and Frank Longo’s syndicated puzzle. Also, the college I teach at provides the NY Times Monday-Friday during the Fall and Spring semesters, so I almost always do that one as well. Every once in a while I will download recent puzzles from the Chronicle of Higher Education and work those as well. I have submitted one puzzle there (rejected) but would someday like to publish a puzzle there.
If I see Patrick Berry or Elizabeth Gorski’s name on a puzzle, I can’t wait to start working on it. I think Merl Reagle and Frank Longo are other-worldly geniuses. Kevin Der has produced some pretty amazing puzzles, especially his Chinese Zodiac puzzle (http://www.xwordinfo.com/Crossword?date=1/30/2011) with Jessica Hui. There’s 10 or 12 others in my pantheon, including some of the themeless maestros (Manny Nosowsky et al.).
Besides crosswords, what are your other hobbies?
I love playing and watching sports and I love all things related to science, including science fiction. I wish puzzles were more sports and science friendly because I’m sure I would have a thicker theme notebook if they were. I have two smart, beautiful kids, the eldest of whom (at 10) tends to dive in to all of my interests, and she has, on more than one occasion, handed me a page full off phrases to add to my word list. She’s even generated a couple of themes (though I’m not sure we’d be able to sell SEEINGRED, FEELINGBLUE, BLUSHINGORANGE, TURNINGPURPLE, GOINGFORTHEGOLD). The kids make me smile a lot.


Anonymous said...

Two puzzles in one week? Wow.

Irish Miss said...

What a fascinating peek into a crossword constructor's mind! Great job, CC, and Steve SJ; you have made me even more appreciative of the skills, creativity, and tenacity that must be constantly honed by all accomplished and successful constructors. Bravo & Brava!

Lemonade714 said...

Nice to know you SJ SJ

Tinbeni said...

Steven J. St. John, Thank you for a very insightful interview with C.C. on Crossword Puzzle Construction.
Very impressed with the thought process that goes into making one of my favorite pastimes.

A "toast" to you at Sunset. Cheers!!!

Abejo said...

Steven and C.C.:

Read the interview. Enjoyed the insight into crossword constructing. Did not realize that a computer could be used to construct a crossword. I will have to check that out.


Steven J. St. John said...


Most constructors use Crossword Compiler to assist their crossword creation. I favor a program called Crossfire. Another popular choice is Crossdown. There is a lot to say on the topic... I think most constructors would agree and disagree with the statement that a "computer could be used to construct a crossword." These programs make it possible to construct better crosswords than you ever could without one. This is good for everybody except maybe the editors - it certainly "raises the bar" and the overall quality of puzzles, but it also means that the editors get more submissions than ever and have to reject many puzzles that don't make the cut (including many of my submissions!).

But by all means, check these programs out. Many of them have demo versions that are pretty advanced. In the hands of someone who solves a lot of puzzles and understands what makes a good, fun puzzle, the software can be a very helpful tool. The other big piece of creating good puzzles with them (besides refining the word lists they use and having patience and creativity) is to pay careful attention to the good advice out there (see this page: Sage Advice at cruciverb.com).

One great thing is that, despite the competition in this hobby (a vanishingly low number of outlets that accept freelance puzzles), the editors and constructors (and solvers, like on this blog) are like one big family that seem to welcome rookies into the fold.

CrossEyedDave said...

After dealing with a houseful of Inlaws, & ignoring them to watch the Masters, i ended up finishing the puzzle late at night in bed. I had a lot of writeovers, but 2 that i "really" did not want to change were:
32D Helium or Neon = Noblegas (inertgas)
46D Hit from behind = Spanked (rearend)

Thanks for the puzzle, & interview insights, can't wait to check out all those links...

PopPopSaint said...

Interesting what parents can learn about their sons reading what they do and write on line. Nice interview CC. We enjoyed your puzzle work Steve. Others should get to watch your "Scrabble" wars when you get together with your brother Kevin.

Todd G said...

Just saw this now. Oops.

I've been lucky enough to exchange e-mail with Steven, and I've appreciated his comments. Now I got to learn more about him as a person, and am really glad I did.

Major congrats on your first Sunday puzzle!! I know how hard they can be to wrangle, and this one turned out particularly well.