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Jun 30, 2012

Interview with John Farmer

I love John Farmer's puzzles. They're always an adventure.

John's "Say the magic word" NY Times (March 11, 2010, click here.) is one of my all-time favorites. He has all the magic word phrases HOCUS POCUS, ABRACADABRA & OPEN SESAME as 3 long theme entries, then SAY THE MAGIC WORD runs diagonally from the first square to the last square in the grid. Letters P, L, E, A, S & E are circled to add the final touch to the puzzle. Just beautiful.

His subsequent "Take a steep nose dive" (NY Times, June 24, 2010) is equally fresh & inventive, as are most of his themed puzzles.

I'm so pleased that John took the time and answered my questions in detail. Enjoy the interview. This is certainly one of the most informative and educating ones we've had on the blog.

What are the seed entries for this puzzle? And which part gave you the most trouble during the construction?

Best I can recall (it's been about a year since I made this one), ZOMBIE LIES was the first seed, though in a different spot and in a slightly different grid. In what passes for political discourse in this land of ours, truth often takes a beating. ZOMBIE LIES is a pretty useful term to describe the kind of false claims that are often and easily refuted, yet never eliminated. Killed one day, stalking victims the next. I first met the phrase in reading about politics, but I've heard it in other contexts as well. WAKE THE DEAD seemed like an apt complement, another answer I don't recall seeing in a crossword before -- always a plus.

I'm not sure where any trouble may have been. At 72 words, it makes the cut for a themeless but it's not the most ambitious of grids. I may have started with more white space in the NE and SW, then added a couple of solitary black squares to make those corners workable. That probably preserved GET SHORTY, a book and a movie I enjoyed, and an answer I like. MORISSETTE, iirc, was a late fill-in for "marionette," which had good cluing potential but in the end didn't fit. Otherwise, I'm not sure what I thought about PANEL SAW, but it does have a certain "cutting-edge" appeal to it.

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

I've read of many people who picked up the crossword habit from their parents and have been solving puzzles since they could read and write. That is not my story.

I grew up on Long Island, the youngest of four kids. I was into sports, rock 'n' roll, and a million other things, but I don't remember touching a crossword in those days. Maybe I did and I was so overmatched I blocked any remnant of the memory. Or maybe I was just underwhelmed. Anyway, my mom enjoyed word puzzles, and my dad, though not a regular solver, had a good mind for that sort of thing, and whatever seed they might have planted was dormant for many years. I was into my forties before I "discovered" crosswords. Still a beginner, I remember struggling one day with a puzzle in the paper and finding certain squares required multiple letters. That intrigued me. Around that time, I stumbled upon the old crossword forum at the N.Y. Times site, and that got me hooked as much as anything. At first I may have been looking for answers, but mostly I came back for the conversation, and with a number of constructors part of the discussion I learned a lot about how puzzles are put together. Before long, I made a few myself. At the start I used pencil and paper and a word list at an Internet site. Not exactly state of the art, but eventually I got a few puzzles published. I did finally upgrade my tools.

Puzzle-making is strictly a sideline for me. My day job is in the telecom biz. Today I live in L.A., with my wife, Sylvie, a teacher, and our son, Donovan, who just completed kindergarten.

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

Style is not anything I ever think about. If I thought my style could be defined, I'd probably try something different next time out.

What I look for in making a puzzle -- whether it's a theme idea, seeds for a themeless, fill for a section, or clues -- is something I haven't seen before. I'm fond of tricky themes, anything with an extra level for the solver to unravel, so my puzzles tend to run middle of the week or later. (My only Monday was a Tonight Show-themed crossword that ran in the N.Y. Times on the day of Conan's debut -- a puzzle with a surprisingly short shelf life.)

Crosswords are a pastiche of language and culture. Anything appealing in the language and culture will likely be appealing in a puzzle. The 23-word title of Fiona Apple's new album will be hard to fit, but you get the idea. Find things that are relevant to people, find things that reflect the way we use words to communicate, mix it up with a bit of wordplay, and you have the makings of a good crossword puzzle.

For a few of my do's, don'ts, and other musings, let's go to bullets:

· Idioms and neologisms are good. Unusual words can be colorful and worth using. Save the obscurities for Scrabble. ("Metapneustic," anyone?)

· Crosswordese. It's a term I don't use. It once meant something, but people use it now to mean different things and it's lost its value. I've seen words like ERIE, ALI, and OREO labeled crosswordese because they're common answers, but they're all legit. On the other hand, ANOA, once the poster child for crosswordese, is so rarely seen in puzzles these days that it's a stretch to call it crosswordese anymore. (Maybe "old chestnut" would be a better term.)

·An answer ought to stand on its own in a grid. If it's a partial phrase, the answer is missing something. It's entirely an aesthetic thing, but I don't like partials and I try to use them no more than once in a puzzle. Maybe that's even too much. I try to avoid prefixes and suffixes for similar reasons.

·On a related note, full names are a plus, but there's nothing wrong with first names or surnames. Singular, that is.

·Abbreviations are fine as long as they're common (etc.), especially ones spoken as written (FBI, PhD). Just don't push it (Asst. D.A., Rt. Rev.).

·A single Roman numeral doesn't bother me. Shorter is better.

·Most "rules" about crosswords can be ignored if you have a good reason. Just make sure it's a good reason.

What's the puzzle you're most proud of and why? I just adored your SAY THE MAGIC WORD puzzle. So many layers of magic and so many lively entries, despite the incredible diagonal restriction you had.

Thanks, C.C. The idea for the MAGIC WORD puzzle came while working on a themeless. I had to rip out one section including a 15, and the only substitute I could find was SAY THE MAGIC WORD. The double meaning of the phrase screamed "Theme!" to me and I immediately abandoned that puzzle to make the other. The diagonal answer was a matter of necessity; same for the scrambled letters in circles that spelled PLEASE. I was lucky to squeeze in what I could without too much collateral damage. In any event, I'm glad you liked it.

The puzzle that I'm probably happiest about is an early one of mine that ran in the N.Y. Times. (http://www.xwordinfo.com/Crossword?date=3/9/2006) It had three main theme entries, all 16 letters -- SQUARE DANCE CLUBS, THREE SQUARE MEALS, WASHINGTON SQUARE -- and the gimmick was that each answer was placed in the grid not just Across, and not just Down, but in the form of a square. It was a puzzle that played with solvers' expectations. I like that element of novelty, and it got a terrific response. It had taken a long time to make the puzzle finally work, and I got the sense then a good idea is worth pursuing if you stick with it.

You're one of the few constructors who bring us both themed and themeless puzzles. Which ones do you enjoy more and what are the major differences in your constructing approach?

I'll take a fresh theme with a twist to it, if you've got one. It's hard to find something truly original (most themes tend to be variations on themes done before), but if the stars are aligned, that's where you find the gold -- something memorable. People still talk about the Election Day puzzle of 1996 but may not remember the crossword in yesterday's paper.

My approach on themes, I suppose, is something like this: groundbreaking is good, but not necessary; always look for some element that has not been done before; consistency is important, but if you need to mix it up don't leave one entry the odd man out; simple is good, and intricate is good, but convoluted is not; what matters is not how you get there but does the final result "work."

A themeless is simpler in one respect -- right, no theme -- but the bar is raised for everything else. Quality fill is critical; fresh, tricky cluing is key; a minimum of crud is essential. What that means is that the grid may need to be worked and reworked to get it ready for primetime. (Actually good advice for any puzzle.) I tend to spend a lot more time on cluing, too. Clue databases are helpful resources, but they really should post this notice: "These are clues that have been used in other crosswords. Now find something else." A good themeless should be a challenge, and about the best way to get that is with misdirection and wordplay. A clue like "Battle fatigue?" will stump solvers until they have a few crossers, then they'll get a payoff and get to feel smart about it too. (That clue was Rich's, btw, and the answer is RUN ON EMPTY.)

I enjoy making both types of puzzles, themed and themeless. In either case, I try to stay flexible. I was working on a coffee-themed puzzle, then discovered something similar had been done before. One of my answers was BAZOOKA JOE, which I liked a lot, so I kept that and started a themeless. (Sort of the reverse of the MAGIC WORD experience.) Making a puzzle is a bit like solving one. You never know what you're going to get.

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

I solve the N.Y. Times every day, the L.A. Times most days, the Fireball each week. In a typical week I'll solve a handful of other puzzles, and how many all depends on how busy I am. Among the others are the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Onion, Ink Well, Jonesin', Post Puzzler, Sunday Challenge, and any of a half-dozen others. I'm a big fan of Matt Gaffney's weekly contest, though it's been off my rotation lately.

There are tons of puzzle constructors whose work I enjoy. It would be a long list, if I made one, and for the most part you already know the names. (Check the column on the right for the "Interviews" roll. Not a bad start, though hardly complete.)

The most enjoyable puzzles don't all come from the usual suspects. Hardly. Let me name a few constructors who have hit it out of the park in recent memory: Jeff Chen (U-TURN palindromes), Caleb Rasmussen (NO U-TURN), Tracy Gray (keeping with the flow of traffic, RIGHT ON RED); George Barany (ALAN TURING tribute, in the CHE), Xan Vongsathorn ("Getting Around"), Josh Knapp (themeless), and hot off the press as I write this, Mike Buckley (PENTOMINOES). None of them has a ton of credits (yet), but they all can make one helluva crossword. The next great puzzle may be the debut in tomorrow's paper.

If you want inspiration, think about the constructors who worked before the technology revolution came along. How many of us could do what they did?

Besides crosswords, what are your other interests?

You're saying there's more to life than crossword puzzles? Well, yes there is.

My time off work, when it comes, is usually family time. T-ball practice, soccer games, teaching my son how to beat me at chess (then he can teach me). If there's a 6-year-old having a birthday party in our corner of town, half a chance I'll be there.

I'm a huge movie fan and was writing regularly about films at my website (http://minaday.com), though not so much in the past year. I also had posted crosswords there every month, and you can find them at the puzzle archive.

I follow baseball. I enjoy reading. I run every day and get in a few 5Ks or 10Ks during the year, or sometimes a marathon. In my otherwise free time, I continue to make notes for a novel, a work I promise myself that I will actually write sometime before the end of the millennium (yes, this millennium).

4 comments:

NYT solver said...

Farmer is a true gentleman.

HeartRx said...

Wonderful interview, C.C. It was fascinating to hear that the seed entry for today's puzzle was one of my favorite entries: ZOMBIE LIES.

It is inspiring to hear the high standards Mr. Farmer sets for himself, yet his puzzles are always so fresh and smooth flowing. I can hardly wait for the next one!

Lemonade714 said...

What a great, detailed and insightful interview. Thank you both

Irish Miss said...

CC and Mr. Farmer:

Thank you for a delightful, informative trip through the land of crossword construction. Continued success to you both!