Apr 29, 2013

Interview with Patti Varol

Patti Varol is the assistant to Rich Norris, editor of LA Times Crossword. She delivers the good & bad news to constructors on whether their puzzles are accepted or rejected. Patti's emails are always clear, thoughtful & gentle. As a constructor, I appreciate very much the constructive feedback she and Rich provide.

Patti is also a fast solver (176th at the ACPT 2011) & a brilliant constructor. If you click here, you'll see all the puzzles she constructed for the LA Times the past few years. They are all theme-dense & super smooth in fill. She makes things look easy.

Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you get interested in crosswords?

I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t solving puzzles! When I was a kid, I used to devour Games Magazine with my grandparents, and we’d solve all kinds of newspaper crosswords together – we weren’t picky! If it had clues and a grid, we tackled it. Puzzles and games were a big part of my childhood.

Most of the jobs I’ve had – and I’ve had a lot of very different jobs – were just a way to pay the bills while I finished school and tried to become a writer. But then I spotted an ad for a puzzle editor, and I couldn’t apply fast enough.

Being a puzzle editor for Penny Press was more than just a way to pay the bills, and I spent twelve very fun years there. I’ve edited or constructed just about every kind of puzzle you can think of, and I’ve worked on every stage of puzzle publishing – layout, design, even software development.

My first year at Penny Press, which was also Rich’s first year as the LAT editor, Rich and I met at the Pleasantville crossword tournament. About a year later, we worked together at another tournament (at Iona College, my alma mater), and we became very good friends.

Rich invited me to be an LAT test-solver, and then hired me to test-solve and fact-check puzzles for Crosswords Club. He encouraged me to start constructing crosswords, and he convinced me to go to ACPT. When I left Penny Press to become a freelance writer, Rich offered me the Assistant's job.

I usually describe myself as a freelance writer and editor, and I do still write book reviews and essays and the occasional short story, but the majority of my freelance work is in crosswords and word games. I play with words all day. Jobs don’t get better than this!
 
What's your philosophy when it comes to fill a Monday grid? You have 5 themes today, 5 in your last Monday puzzle. All pretty long entries, yet the fill is so clean.

Easy, early-week puzzles are such a challenge to make. A Monday needs to be accessible to every solver, even the most inexperienced – the last thing a Monday should do is frustrate a brand-new solver. The theme needs to be straightforward, the fill can’t have anything too weirdly obscure, and the clues should lead the solver to the answer. But it should also be fun and interesting for experienced solvers – that’s the trickiest part. Having 5 or more themers in a Monday can help make an easy puzzle more interesting for experienced solvers.

What kind of theme & fill fascinate you and what kind do you try to avoid in your puzzles?

I love being surprised by a puzzle – a clue that makes me look at an ordinary word in a new way, or a pun that makes me laugh out loud, or a theme with an unexpected twist. And I’m always impressed with a puzzle when the nontheme fill is as lively and as interesting as the theme itself.

Every solver has hit something in a puzzle – a lame or inconsistent themer, too-trivial trivia in a clue, crossing obscurities in a grid -- that makes you want to throw your newspaper across the room. I try to avoid the stuff that makes you want to throw things.

Which part do you enjoy the most in the construction process: theme development, filling or cluing?

It’s all great, but cluing is my favorite. Each part of the process is a different challenge for me. I’m very good at coming up with solid themes … that have been done a million times already. I’m also very good at coming up with themes that will never in a million years fit in any grid. So, when I get to the cluing stage, the hardest work is behind me. And I get to play with words some more.

What kind of tools & references do you use for theme brainstorming, cluing and fact checks?

I have a ratty old graph paper notebook that I use for developing themes and for trying out grid designs, but I use Crossword Compiler for constructing. I often dip into Steven Glazier’s Word Menu for inspiration (themes and clues). As anyone who has ever helped me move can attest, I own more dictionaries and reference books than I feel like counting or listing right now. Friends who have helped me move my very heavy reference books do not want to know that a) I do much of my fact-checking online and b) the one book I use every day is the tiniest: Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.

How challenging is it to be Rich's assistant?

I have the best job ever, with the best boss ever (and I’m not just saying that because I know he’ll read this). Rich and I have been friends and colleagues for many years; we make a great team, and I love working with him.

The biggest challenge of the job is writing emails to constructors when a theme just doesn’t appeal to Rich. Rich and I both firmly believe that constructors need detailed feedback on their work: newbie constructors can only benefit from hearing precisely what works and doesn’t work in the puzzles they’re making. And more senior constructors can sometimes develop blind spots about their puzzles. The more specific we are in our acceptance and rejection letters, the better our constructors will be.

Sometimes, though, a theme just doesn’t appeal to Rich, and there’s not much more to say about it. It’s just a taste thing. Those are the hardest letters to write, because I never want constructors to feel like they’ve been sent a form letter or that we didn’t evaluate a puzzle thoroughly.

Besides crosswords, what else do you do for fun?

At the moment, I am stiff and sore and sunburned from a 15-mile bike ride, so I’m hesitating to call it “fun,” but I do love exploring my little part of California on my bike.

I’m a Mets fan, and I’m listening to them lose to the Phillies (… again) as I’m typing these answers, so I’m starting to wonder if there’s anything I do that can be called “fun”!

I’m a bit of a foodie, and I love discovering new restaurants as much as I love to cook. I have a weakness for farmers markets, and this New York girl cannot get enough of the fresh produce available here in California year-round. I still can’t believe I can buy avocados and ginger and grapefruit at a farmers market! I really enjoy experimenting with new recipes and ingredients. Cooking helps me unwind; it’s a meditative experience for me. I just hate doing the dishes.

I’m also a bookworm; I read three or four novels a week. And I play video games more than I probably should, and I watch old episodes of Doctor Who more than anyone should.

10 comments:

TTP said...

I enjoyed reading the interview and feel like I now know Patti a little bit.

HeartRx said...

It's nice to hear more from Patty than "Sorry, but the theme just didn't appeal to Rich." (^0^)

I get many emails from her, and I have to agree that she always gives detailed advice and encouragement. Thanks for the insightful interview, C.C.!

MJ said...

Thanks for the interview, C.C. It's always fun to hear from the constructors!

Thank you, Patti, for taking the time to share with us!

Irish Miss said...

Great interview, CC and Patti. It's always a treat to hear a little bit about the constructors' lives "off the grid."

Anonymous said...

Getting to know Patti and a behind the scenes peak of the puzzler's world. Solving a Monday or Tuesday puzzle quickly makes my day. The rest of the week, I'm stretched for time, so they get a quick glance. Always feels good if I can solve 50% of a hard puzzle. Thanks Patti and Rich for great publishing great puzzles.

Anonymous said...

CC - how many interviews have you done? This is the best after the Brad Wilber one.

Jayce said...

Fascinating reading. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Patti,
When Rich accepts a puzzle from you, how do you write your acceptance letter?

patti said...

Thanks, everyone, for making me feel so welcome!

@Anonymous: Self-acceptance has never been my strong suit ...

Matt Skoczen said...

I've only met Patti a while back (though I've gotten my share of rejections [more than I care to admit] along with my acceptances) and we've recently become e-mail pals a la 84, Charing Cross Road, I like to call it. She is a true charm and I am happy now to call her a "friend" even though we've never met. And, as usual, I am behind with things which is why I am just reading this Interview, which was great to read--and I am sorry my Phillies beat her Mets at the time, I think. Can't wait to meet you some day in person, Patti!