May 22, 2012

Interview with Andrea Carla Michaels

Andrea Carla Michaels is a specialist in early-week puzzle. In fact, out of 32 puzzles she constructed for the New York Times, 16 are Mondays and 5 are Tuesdays.

I've mentioned before that it's hard to make early week puzzles. The themes have to be simple but fresh. The fill have to be familiar words/phrases. It's not uncommon for constructors to re-do a section or two just to remove a word editors consider a bit too hard for Monday/Tuesday grids.

Andrea is so good at producing smooth grids with fun entries. It's obvious that she always has her fans and solvers in mind when creating crosswords. She is also one of the most bubbling, encouraging and caring constructors I've never met.

Many solvers (myself included) missed the increase in size in your "Body of Water" puzzle last Monday. Has this happened before, where solvers failed to fully grasp the subtlety or extra layer of your theme?

Um, I would say that happens in every puzzle I create! But that's ok, I throw in lots of stuff to please myself (pangrams, increase in size of water in order, putting SHMEAR over the word BAGEL). I make them for others, but thank god for the blogs, before them, I'd never have known if anyone did them, much less notice the subtle touches. I tell myself folks are appreciating them on a subconscious level ;)

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

Been doing crosswords all my life. Started making them by putting in friend's names and making birthday puzzles. Started with making them for TV Guide and Disney Adventures, inching my way up to the NY Times about 10 years ago...and the LA Times! I try and teach others how to make them as well. Only in the past few years have I started collaborating (and now have collaborated as often as solo efforts past 5 years!) so I had to learn how to use a computer in order to share info.

What mistakes did you make when you first started constructing and what advice would you give to budding constructors?

I was unaware there were rules as to how many black squares, how many words were allowed. I would save old grids from Monday-Wed and then fit my themes into them, adding a black square here, subtracting one there...so I actually had one in the LA Times with 80 words, a total
no-no...but who knew?

How would you describe your puzzle style? What kind of theme and entries fascinate you the most?

Well, I'm definitely a Monday gal! No matter WHAT day of the week I make (I have had a few Sundays, all with partners who carried me, gridwise) they get published Mondays. So I guess my style is easy. I've been told they are smooth, light, breezy (yay blogs!) but usually they are something fun I've noticed about film titles, or taking usual clichees and finding a threesome (now foursome, as four is the new three) that work together.

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

My cluing has to be straightforward, as I'm a Monday gal, as I've said. So I owe a huge debt now to Crossfire that Michael Blake forced me to learn. I now scroll down and find the clue I WOULD have written and click on that. So what used to take me days to type up, I can now do in 20 minutes! So the longest time is probably spent on brainstorming, finding a perfect third phrase to go with one or two I've stumbled across. Most of it is serendipitous...so when folks ask me how long it takes me to make a puzzle, I usually say "50 years!" bec I'm drawing on things that have slowly accumulated throughout the entire time of my existence on earth!

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

One of my first puzzles for the NY Times, maybe it was my first puzzle? was one on Earthquakes. I had SANANDREASFAULT going across the middle with EARTHQUAKE above and AFTERSHOCK below. I asked Will (Shortz) if he could make it look like a tear ran thru
it, to have it look like an earthquake had happened. He shifted the middle squares up a tiny bit and the next ones down a little. But folks thought something was wrong with their paper and didn't do it (bec you had to solve to get it that it was supposed to look all funky) and in the electronic version, they couldn't shift the squares so it looked super straightforward and lost the zing. Also it was a dream come true to have a Sunday puzzle, and Patrick Blindauer, whom I've collaborated on many larger puzzles which have been in the NYT and the WSJ, made that happen a few times over. My favorite was to have one where there were dozens of words with the letters ANT in them. I suggested to Patrick that the black squares look like paths thru an ant farm...within hours he sent a grid with the note "Do you mean like THIS?" The man is a genius! I also love a puzzle I got all the names of the cast of GILLIGANSISLAND (running across themiddle) Will said they all had to be the real names OR the character names but couldn't mix both. As miracles would happen, GILLIGANSISLAND was 15 letters across, and six of the cast members had parallel number of letters in their names!!! There are all sorts of puzzles I've loved but that's what comes to mind.

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

I usually only do one puzzle a day, I'm sorry to say. I do the NYT. But I do the LA Times at least once a week when a friend has made it, plus it appears in my local San Francisco Chronicle. It's not a snobby thing, it's a time thing.

Besides crosswords, what are your other interests?

I'm an avid film goer (mostly foreign films and documentaries. I play a ton of Scrabble semi-professionally, sometimes I teach a class in it.

My heart is in volunteer work, I work at various soup kitchens and visit with the elderly. Many friends died young from AIDS and that is close to my heart...they are not forgotten. I try and volunteer for every day I work for $. Professionally I name companies and products, so my life is mostly words words words and trying to make the world a slightly less hungry and sad place. Not to end on such a serious note, but it's the truth! Crosswords are my true passion tho, and I'm a solver first, constructor second, tho the balance has tipped the other way of late!

10 comments:

HeartRx said...

I truly admire anyone who can pull of a Monday puzzle like this, and Andrea Carla Michaels is a maestro.

Thanks for a great interview, C.C.!

MJ said...

Thank you for the wonderful, informative interview, C.C.

Ms. Michaels, your zest for life and positive passion for more than just crosswords shine through your responses. Thank you for taking the time to share with us.

Anonymous said...

what a beautiful woman.

Lemonade714 said...

What a wonderful interview of another great person who makes puzzles. Thank you Andrea and C.C.

Irish Miss said...

Terrific interview, CC. Hats off to Ms. Michaels.

Tobias Duncan said...

Andrea is one of my favorite humans.
Here is a wonderful video short.

http://vimeo.com/29161046

Argyle said...

A link to the video short.

Jayce said...

Such a delightful interview with such a delightful person! Thank you.

foodie said...

Great interview, great lady and terrific video!

The idea of being creative within a structure is really interesting. Discipline and creativity mixing to produce something new and enjoyable.

Mimi said...

Andrea is one of MY favorite humans, too! I love you, Andrea! And LOVE your crossword puzzles... you have given me the joy and peace of solving :-)