Mar 28, 2013

Interview with Jeff Hyson and Victor Barocas

Some of you might remember Victor Barocas from the Minnesota Crossword Tournament recap I put on the blog in early Feb, or this fantastic "Latin Square" rebus puzzle he made for the Chronicle of Higher Education puzzle in 2011, or this Blind Carbon Copy puzzle where CC is hidden inside the black squares, or this "Three Musketeers" puzzle we solved in 2012. His puzzles are always inventive and original. 

Jeff Hyson finished 36th in this year's ACPT. He beat Peter Gordon and Rich Norris :-) Jeff also test-solved all the MN tournament puzzles for Victor and provided very valuable  feedback to constructors. Congrats on the debut, Jeff!

How did you start collaborating on this puzzle? I presume Jeff came up with the FLOAT idea?

Jeff:  Victor and I met at the 2012 ACPT in Brooklyn by sheer chance. It was my first ACPT and I just happened to sit near him; we discovered we were both academics and spent the rest of the weekend chatting between rounds and over lunch. After the tournament, Victor asked if I wanted to test-solve some of his puzzles, which I happily did -- his grids are really creative and very smooth, and it was fascinating to get an inside look at the construction process. After a while, Victor asked if I'd be interested in co-constructing a puzzle, and I leaped at the chance. He already had the FLOAT theme and the grid all in place; I took responsibility for the clues.

Victor: Jeff pretty much said it all.  We got along well, and I like working with other people, so it seemed like something worth trying.

Did you each fill and clue half the grid? What did the collaborative process look like?

Jeff:  Victor came up with the FLOAT theme and filled the grid. Once he sent that to me, I came up with the clues. Since this was my first-ever shot at crossword construction, I wasn't always sure how to pitch the clues' difficulty, but I looked back at some previous LAT crosswords to get a sense of the proper style and challenge. After I'd drafted a full batch of clues, Victor offered some suggested edits, and after a couple of further back-and-forths, he sent everything off to Rich Norris. Rich then gave his own very helpful suggestions, including a requested revision of one corner to eliminate an unacceptable entry (IED, if I recall?). Victor redid that part of the grid, the last few clues got written (mostly by Victor and Rich, I believe), and that was that.

Victor: Again, not much to add.  I have never split a grid in half - is that how you and Don do it? (From C.C.: Yes, Don and I split up grids most of the time.)
What's your background and how did you get into crossword construction?

Jeff: I'm a history professor at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, specializing in American cultural, intellectual, and environmental history. I've long had enormous admiration for constructors but had never attempted making a puzzle myself. As I got more deeply into solving over the past few years, I did try to make a couple of grids but soon gave up in frustration. Victor's offer of co-constructing and starting with the clues was a great opportunity to test the waters. Now I think I'm ready to swim a little deeper and give solo constructing another shot.

Victor: I am in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Minnesota (Go Gophers!), specializing in soft-tissue mechanics.  I have been doing crosswords for as long as I can remember, and after getting a little more into them in the last few years, I decided to take a shot at constructing. I like trying to fit the words together.
What kind of themes and fill thrill you and what kind do you try to avoid in your grids?

Jeff: I'll let Victor talk about his constructing strategies and preferences. As a solver, I truly do enjoy themes like this one for FLOAT: several seemingly unrelated theme entries linked through a surprising revealer. I'm also a sucker for good puns and wordplay, provided that the entries/clues aren't so "wacky" that they feel totally forced. For fill, I'm especially strong at pop culture (I teach a course on the history of US pop culture, and I have two middle-school kids, so I'm up on current fads), so I enjoy the satisfaction of picking up on a relatively obscure movie or TV reference. Not surprisingly, then, I often click with Brendan Emmett Quigley's puzzles; his ACPT #3 this year was where I really hit my stride.

Victor: Fundamentally, the puzzle should be about the solver, not the constructor, so I want to make puzzles in which the solver gets to have the aha moment (either with or without a revealer's help).  I will generally sacrifice a theme entry to get better fill - bad fill almost guarantees a bad solving experience. I'll sometimes try to do weird things with the puzzle, but that runs the danger of making it about me rather than the solver, so sometimes it doesn't work out.

Both of you are fast solvers, how many puzzles do you solve every day and who are your favorite constructors?

Jeff:  I get in to the office pretty early every day, so I try to run through the usual daily puzzles on Amy Reynaldo's Crossword Fiend site (NYT, LAT, CrossSynergy, Newsday) before buckling down to work. If you add in the various weekly puzzles (BEQ, AV Club, WSJ, Reagle, Fireball, etc.), I probably do 5-6 puzzles a day on average. I'll also sometimes solve a couple more from books at bedtime. Before each ACPT, I bought a couple of additional puzzle books to get my paper-solving skills up to speed, so I was probably up to 10 a day in those last couple of weeks. As I said above, I'm a huge fan of Brendan Emmett Quigley's puzzles for their creativity and currency. Matt Gaffney's metas are often astonishing in their ingenuity; I've probably had more "how-did-he-do-that" moments with his puzzles than with anyone else's. And for sheer, smooth, consistent brilliance, I don't think anyone can touch Patrick Berry. (Oh, and Victor's not bad, either!)

Victor:  I do 2-3 puzzles most days.  Five would be a lot.  Patrick Berry is the best, and I especially like that he uses Greek and Roman history or mythology, which is both a strength for me and a nostalgic pleasure because I spent a lot of time with the classics in high school. I have never seen a Mike Nothnagel puzzle that I didn't like, and I also like  Peter Gordon and Patrick Blindauer. I thought that Andrew Ries's recent contest was superb.  Finally, I always struggle with Joon Pahk's puzzles because his cluing doesn't jibe with my thinking somehow, but it's a good struggle and never feels unfair, so I am always excited when I see his byline.

Besides crosswords, what else do you do for fun?

Jeff: I'm a big sports fan, though the Philadelphia teams are testing my loyalties even more than usual these days. My son and I attended second and third round NCAA tournament games in Philly this weekend; seeing #15 seed Florida Gulf Coast University upset #2 Georgetown was one of my all-time greatest sports-spectator experiences. I also play piano and sing (my wife and I met in the Yale Glee Club), though not as much as I used to Before Kids. And I enjoy playing board games with my son and daughter, who are the funniest people I know. 

Victor: I like to do stuff with my family, I read a fair amount, and I play racquetball a couple of times a week.  I share Jeff's affection for sports and pain at being shackled with lousy teams (but, boy, can that Adrian Peterson run!). I also have a great job, and I enjoy all aspects of it: doing research, teaching classes, mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, and even some of the administrative work. 


Lemonade714 said...

What a truly wonderful, open interview. You really make the crossword puzzling world come together in your work C.C. Thank you gentleman.

Irish Miss said...


With your interviewing skills, you could easily replace Matt Lauer! Kudos to you and many thanks to Jeff and Victor for a delightful peek into their lives.

fermatprime said...

Very interesting interview!