Jan 31, 2015

Interview with Ned White

Today's themeless is Ned White's 6th puzzle for the LA Times. Ned also has had 11 puzzles published by the New York Times, 10 of them are hard Friday/Saturday themeless. And he made all of them by hand! I don't think I can even keep the clue numbers correct without help from my software.

We don't often get a mini-theme on Saturdays, I hope you enjoy how Ned put this puzzle together. I  also love very much how he values his solvers and his advice to new constructors.

Ned White, Bangor Daily News

I was surprised to learn last August that you did not use Crossword Compiler. I presume this puzzle was made by hand also?

Yes, it was. But I've recently stopped tormenting myself and now use Crossfire, which works nicely on a Mac. Most of my published puzzles have been by hand, but the trauma and bloodshed just aren't worth it anymore.

What are the seed entries of this puzzle and what trouble did you encounter while filling in the grid?

I was looking for two crossing spanners that resonated with/played off each other for the "seed answers", and I loved both CLICK IT OR TICKET and USE INDOOR VOICES, since they're both warnings and one's used on the highway and the other, often, in a hallway, and they both have a subtle sense of fun about them. I also wanted THE RULES at 62 Across to help anchor the puzzle with what they call a "mini-theme." The challenge was 1 Across, 8 letters ending in C. Also, MALIK at 44 Across... One Direction is still a popular group, but this was clearly one of those "you probably don't know it, but here it is anyway" kind of answers. TETE A TETE gives easy letters to cross through, so I'm not so thrilled with it, but I thought it was cool getting all of EDIE FALCO in the grid. It's all give and take.

Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you get into crossword construction?

My background and training is in creative writing, and my career has been in novels, scriptwriting (TV and corporate, drama and documentary), and occasionally creative direction. Writing has its good and lean years, so after watching the movie "Wordplay" during a lean-ish year, I said, "I can do this." Followed by, "I think I want to do this." Well, several months later, I had my first acceptance, but it took me a few weeks to get that puzzle just right. When it was published three years later as a Saturday, "Rex Parker" was appalled by how hard it was. I had to agree. But I could also have told him, "Forget about how hard it is to solve, you have no idea how hard it was to make." It was a monster.

I should add, my first published puzzle (in the NYT) used the same grid as today's LAT puzzle. I debuted at the age of 63, I think, and that's quite a bit later than most, but I felt ready for anything, anytime. Age is not an issue. Bernice Gordon gave us great stuff into her triple figures (I just learned of her passing today... the tributes to her are inspiring and moving). So yes, I got a late start, but I'm actually kind of proud of it, and I intend to keep at it for quite a long time.

Which part do you enjoy the most in the construction process: theme development, filling or cluing?
Others have said, and I agree, themeless puzzles are easier to construct than themed puzzles, but harder to have accepted because the bar has been raised so high in the last year or two. Most of my puzzles are themeless, but I'm having a lot of fun with theme ideas that involve simple wordplay and puns. But different editors have different senses of humor, so you never know.

Cluing is always difficult for me. It takes me a solid 8 hours to clue a 15X. For fill words in a themed puzzle, I attempt misdirective or punny "question mark" clues for varying percentages of the answers, depending on which weekday the puzzle is best suited to. ETE for a Monday is probably "Summer on the Seine" and for a Friday "Nice time for a tan?", but there's just so much you can do with crosswordese like that. Otherwise, I strive to avoid cluing that's been used before, but I'm not always successful. Editors like Will and Rich and more recently Patti Varol always seem to be more creative than I, and I'll see one of their clues and ask, "Why didn't I think of that?" Trying to outguess them (to be more devious and clever) is nearly impossible for me. I had SCOTS in an NYT themeless, and Will kept my "Firth class?" clue. I had NAE in the same puzzle with "Firth refusal?", but that one didn't make the cut.

You've made both themed and themeless puzzles. What are the major differences in your approach to fill?

Themed puzzle fill, at worst, can be workmanlike, but now we see more and more really sparkling "crunchy" longish stuff crossing through 2 or 3 themed answers. Themeless puzzle fill has to keep reaching for the new, fresh, original, and surprising, and keep 3- and 4- letter fill words to a minimum. Some constructors will do anything for a pangram, or for a super high Scrabble count, but to me that's secondary to entertainment value and some fun in the grid. If I could give one piece of advice to new constructors (and I still consider myself fairly new at this, with barely two dozen puzzles in print), it would be "don't aim for the fences; give the solver a good time." I think we're seeing an excess of virtuosity in construction - quad stacks, very few blocks, etc. - and it's impressive but it doesn't necessarily make for a good solve with spanners that don't have much interest or bite (it can also force some very ugly downcrossing fill). I used to aim for a certain level of virtuosity, but no more. I want people to laugh, or at least smile, when they do my puzzles.

Besides crosswords, what are your other hobbies?

Carla and I live on a backwater cove on the coast of Maine in a house we built about 3 years ago, so one "hobby" is working on the property. Otherwise, I do some photography, play some guitar and piano, and there's lots of veggie gardening in the summer and attempts at mackerel jigging. I also blog weekly with the Bangor Daily News (Journeys Over a Hot Stove) about our road trips and different residences all over the U.S. mixed with regional recipes and food and topics that are completely unrelated. Usually, the posts are "humorous," or try to be, but sometimes they're quite serious. I've driven through 49 states, and I think the blog, on the whole, shows a deep affection for the diversity of landscape in this country, the people who live there, and the different sense of "soul" I've sensed in different regions. A few of my posts are "love letters" to a tiny town or a particular corner of a state or some stranger who made a lasting impression.


Lemonade714 said...

Another interesting person interviewed. With the return of Jeffery Wechsler to constructing and the ongoing work of so many more -John Lampkin, Jerome Gunderson, Ed Sessa, Jack McInturff, so many,the legacy of Bernice Gordon will live on.

Thank you C.C. and Dr.White.

HeartRx said...

Nice interview, C.C. I am amazed at how many of Ned's accepted puzzles were done by hand! Now that he uses compiler software, I'm looking forward to many more of his creations.