Aug 30, 2014

Interview with Martin Ashwood-Smith

Like many constructors, I check Cruciverb religiously to avoid theme dupe. Often I find out that the clever idea I thought I had was done by Martin Ashwood-Smith many years ago for the CrosSynergy. 

Martin is a very prolific constructor. As you can read from George Barany's Friends bio, Martin has over 550 puzzles published by the CrosSynergy alone. He also had 76 puzzles published by the New York Times. Of those 400 + Games magazines, half a dozen are 25x25 Ornerys.

Martin is known as a master of triple & quad stacks (three or four grid-spanning 15-letter entries are stacked together). In fact, he constructed and published more of both types of puzzle than any other constructor. He's had about 15 quad stack puzzles published in the NYT, which he thinks (to date) has the biggest collection of this type of puzzle. 

Martin was also the first to have have a quad stack puzzle in the LAT in 2012. David Steinberg was the second , and today's is our number three quad stack. One of Martin's  puzzle books consists entirely of stacked-style puzzles... titled unsurprisingly: "Triple-Stack Crosswords". 

I have no experience making quad-stacks, or triple stacks or even double stacks. They scare me. I imagine every quad-stack has a seed entry also, like today's WILD GOOSE CHASES? Were there any other entries you seeded in the triple 10's on top & bottom?

In this case, the seed entry was the bottom quad-stack entry, PEER ASSESSMENTS. Quad stacks are very difficult to construct, so you generally have to proceed from the 15-letter word that you think will give you be best chances of finding others that work with it. 

Can you tell us how a typical quad-stack puzzle is made and what challenges you face when filling in this type of grid?

I always try to assemble/construct the stacks first. This means that I usually have no idea what the eventual grid will look like. It's not uncommon for me to try and assemble dozens of "close-but-no-cigar" quad stack sets, before finally finding something that looks promising. Even then, there's no guarantee that a reasonable grid can be constructed around the set of quads. For example, in today's puzzle, I had no idea that the final version would have sets of stacked 10-letter-words in the top right and bottom left areas... but I'm glad it did!

I went though about 5 or 6 different grid variants before I came up with the final grid. I think the original had AAMES (the actor), but that made the grid far too closed off. A few days later, AA MEETINGS suddenly popped into my head, and the whole puzzle looked much more doable. Funny how that happens... that's one of the reasons I love constructing crosswords. 

You've made lots of themed & themeless puzzles for various newspapers & magazines. What are the major differences in your approach to fill?

Pretty much the same, although I try and keep any hard words out of my themed CrosSynergy/Washington Post puzzles, since the majority of them are intended to be at about a Tuesday level of difficulty on the New York Times scale. 

For themed puzzles, which part do you enjoy the most in the construction process: theme development, filling or cluing?

I've always enjoyed the construction most, since I always try to come up with an original grid to accommodate the sets of theme clues.

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

I avoid repeated word themes for sure, but they're pretty much verboten in most puzzle markets today anyway. I know I'm in the minority here, but I always enjoy making quote/quip themed puzzles, especially if the quip is fresh and amusing.

I read from this article in The Globe & Mail that you're a taxi driver. Do you mentally count letters when hearing interesting phrases from customers?

Actually, no (at least not often). My crossword life rarely intersects with my cab driving life. However, I do find my job very useful when it comes to hearing the latest usage and "in" words from teenagers. And occasionally, I will see or think of something that will give me some puzzle ideas. But on the whole cab driving is useful to me because it gets me out of the house, away from the computer monitor, and away from crosswords in general!

Besides crosswords, what are your other hobbies?

When I get the time I enjoy weightlifting, classical and electronic music. I'm also a bit of a train enthusiast.

6 comments:

George Barany said...

Nice interview, C.C. It's been a privilege to host any number of Martin Ashwood-Smith's "bonus" puzzles on my crossword website (just search for his name in the master index). MAS is one of the nicest people I would ever want to meet ... and perhaps one of these days, I will meet him! To date, all of our interactions have been by e-mail or phone.

Lemonade714 said...

I cannot imagine the time it takes to construct puzzles the way MAS does. It is also is wonderful to learn the diverse backgrounds of the people who make the puzzles. Those who do not know think puzzling is for geeks.

Martin is also a prolific poster who shares his experience. Thanks, and C.C. You deliver again

Irish Miss said...

Great interview, CC and MAS. Thanks for sharing some of the intricacies of cw construction. It certainly is an art.

Bill G. said...

That was an enjoyable interview as always. Where does MAS live? I'm guessing London.

Anonymous said...

Not any more, I was born there but now live in Victoria BC (about 60 miles NW of Seattle).

- MAD

Anonymous said...

Ahem... I mean MAS (not MAD!)