Jun 15, 2014

Interview with Elizabeth C. Gorski

Since 1995, Elizabeth C. Gorski has 211 puzzles published by the New York Times, making her the second most-published crossword constructor under Will Shortz's editorship. Liz is also a regular contributor to the LA Times & The Wall Street Journal.

Liz is also the Managing Editor of Crossword Nation, which provides quintessential Liz- style puzzle every week: inventive themes, contemporary & adventurous fill & fantastic clues.  It's not unusual to see a 72-worder in her puzzles. See here as an example.

I've said this before: Liz sees what others can't. She does what others can't or won't.


What's your philosophy when it comes to grid design? Those stacked 6's & 7's on the upper right & lower left look daunting to fill, esp when crossed by 9/7/6. I might have also chickened out and broken 18-Across & 126-Across into two. 

My grid design philosophy is: literacy, humor and novelty. Once I position the themed entries and surround them with a good fill, I try to “open” the grid (reduce the word count) and introduce a new-and-better fill. The challenge is: to improve the fill and preserve accessibility. Perhaps the prospect of including WINEGLASS encouraged me to open up the grid!

Writing a puzzle fill takes time and repeated attempts -- lots of them. I keeping trying until the fill fits the bill.  Constructing “by hand” is an invaluable skill and I’ll use that method for tricky grid areas, such as 126-Across. Sometimes I’ll chicken out completely, reposition the themed entries and start over again. Perseverance is key.

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

When I was starting out, I spent a lot of time on grid design, but today – the most time-consuming task is theme brainstorming. It takes time to develop themes that haven’t been done before. Since the ‘90s I’ve tried to find puzzle software that eliminates the repetitive drudge work (managing word lists, making grid templates, numbering etc.).  I love Crossword Compiler – it’s the best, in my opinion. I’ve written my own programs to manage word lists and automate uncreative tasks. 

I’m always adding interesting words (BESTIE) and removing terrible words (UNHAT) in an effort to create a “human” vocabulary. I don’t waste time assigning number values to words – that’s where I draw the line with software. By automating essential tasks, there's more time to focus on duties that call for a human brain – theme brainstorming and clue writing.  When used effectively, technology improves the quality of puzzles by freeing up more “think” time. It’s that simple.

Like many other solvers, I love the originality & extra visuals in your puzzles. I also love your clues. What tools do you use to make the clues fresh, creative and fun?

Thank you for the compliment!  After I finish a puzzle, I will revisit it over a period of a few days; that’s when I fold, spindle, mutilate or rewrite the clues.  It helps to let a puzzle breathe for a while. Think of a bottle of wine that needs to breathe.  There’s no secret sauce.  I just write and then rewrite. 

My favorite brain exercise is: thinking of new clues for plain words.  Like … GOTHS (Men and women in black); CHEEK (Moon unit?); SOCIETY (Human body?); POLKA DOTS (They’re spotted on dresses?); OAKS (They were nuts); DINOSAURS (Layer of jumbo eggs?)

One important note: of course, today’s puzzle was greatly improved by Rich Norris’ amazing talents. Rich proposed the puzzle title “Pas de Deux.” What a smashing play on words, with a Father’s Day twist! (Much better than “Pop Duo” – my title). His title is literate, artistic and thoughtful.  I love it.   

What kind of theme and fill excite you and what kind do you try to avoid in your grids? 

Above all, I try to avoid making puzzles with themes that have been done before. Puzzle databases (Jim Horne’s xwordinfo.com and Matt Ginsberg’s puzzledatabase) are enormously helpful; I use them to rule out ideas. I’m surprised to see puzzles with overdone themes these days. Like the MOA, that should be a thing of the past. 

When a constructor is brainstorming themes, it’s just as important to rule out certain themes, as it is to create new ones.  Solvers are smart – they know when a puzzle is old or a re-hash. As editors and constructors, it’s our responsibility to work harder for our customers.
 
When I make the weekly Crossword Nation puzzle, I have an turnaround-time advantage -- the work is published within days of creation.  We use technology to provide a fresh puzzle-solving experience for our subscribers. Puzzles are new and current – never kept on a shelf. This is the future of puzzle distribution and it’s radically different from the traditional model. I like to think of independent crossword providers as mom-and-pop stores that offer a high-quality alternative for to their customers. As a puzzle producer and consumer, I am a proponent of using technology to improve puzzle quality and distribution. We owe our customers – puzzle solvers -- a good product based on fresh content.   

Of all the puzzles you've constructed, which are you most proud of?

Because of its unusual asymmetric design, puzzle solvers often ask about the GuggenheimMuseum puzzle (“Ahead of the Curve”: October 2009, The New York Times). It was architectural – a simple spiral that echoed the shape of Frank Lloyd Wright’s prescient design. And it celebrated the Museum’s 50th anniversary.  What delighted me most was that, on the Sunday the puzzle was published, visitors to the Museum were seen walking the spiral with the crossword puzzle in hand! A puzzle within a puzzle. That was an unexpected honor.

What puzzles do you solve every day and which constructors constantly inspire you?
I regard “constructing” puzzles as a form of problem solving. You’re creating a problem for yourself (“Gee, I’d like to make a puzzle that looks like Secretariat or a double helix …”), and then you have to make the puzzle. (You’ve created a big problem for yourself!) That keeps my synapses firing.  As for daily puzzles, I try to keep up with Puzzle Social puzzles, if I have the time. 

If I were to choose a constructor who influenced me as a solver, it would be: Maura Jacobson.  Her New York Magazine puzzles were autobiographical – cute, funny, literate and accessible.  She wrote a Sunday-sized masterpiece (without software) every week, for 30 years. I admire her discipline and unique ability to challenge solvers without dumbing-down the puzzle.  Based on her ideas and clues, you sensed that Maura had many interests: books, travel, family, pets, cooking, films, punnery, popular culture, Broadway, classical music.  You came away from her puzzle feeling good and liking the person who made it … and counting the days until her next puzzle appeared. She is one of the most important crossword constructors ever. A true original.    

Besides crosswords, what else do you do for fun?

I am a trained musician (violin and viola) and I love to play chamber music, especially string quintets.  I’ve been a tennis player since high school and I have a passion for exploring New York City on foot. I like the music of Rob Thomas, Ed Sheeran and Frederic Chopin.  Other interests: flamenco dancing, root vegetables, air craft carriers (there’s one in NYC) and crop circles.

4 comments:

MaryLou Guizzo said...

Really enjoyed reading this informative interview. Thanks Liz and c.c.!

Qli said...

Great interview! It's so cool to "meet" the constructors and learn about how they think.
Thanks!

Anonymous said...

The best constructor ever!

Lemonade714 said...

I am so sorry I did not read this until now. She is clearly a wonderful and class act, I can see her words inspiring and educating those whop try to follow in her footsteps.

MY only question, what is the MOA of which she speaks?