May 14, 2015

Interview with Kevin Christian

Today is our 18th puzzle from Kevin Christian (no relation to this Gia Christian), who stops by our blog and reads what we have to say every time he has a puzzle, just like Dan Naddor. 
  
If you study Kevin's grids covered on our blog, you'll notice that Kevin has an eclectic style. He is one of the very few constructors who can make both easy Mondays and tough Saturdays. 

Also like Dan, Kevin has a fondness for theme density & has a specific number of long fill he tries to incorporate in his grids. Look at this ET puzzle he did for the NYT in 2013. Amazing stacks and intersections.

I enjoyed very much reading his answers. I hope you do also.


I presumed you also considered using *BAN/*BEN/*BIN/*BON/*BUN as theme entries, but decided to go with the vowel progression as clues approach?

I never considered *BAN/*BEN/*BIN/*BON/*BUN although maybe I should have, and I didn’t consider BAN*/BEN*/BIN*/BON*/BUN* either.  I did consider *BAND/*BEND/*BIND/*BOND/*BUND, there are some fun theme answer possibilities for that one, but it had been done before.  Bon Scott died when I was a sophomore in high school, and I’ve always been an AC/DC fan, so once I figured out that ACDC SINGER SCOTT had 15 letters, it was pretty much a done deal that I would go the route of using BAN BEN BIN BON BUN as the clues.  I liked that I was able to come up with five 15’s for the theme answers.  I liked that one of them is a horror movie reference.  I liked that when I did the construction I was able to get a pangram without doing anything too unnatural.  I liked that the puzzle only has 74 entries instead of the max 78.  It just kind of worked.

Is there any reason why all your theme entries have 15-letters? What were the other theme answers you also considered but discarded?

I like to challenge myself.  Five 15’s is a hard construction.  Bruce Venzke did one in 2010, and Mark Bickham did one in 2011, but I don’t know if anyone else has done one since those two.  You certainly don’t see them too often.  Doug Peterson once said to me that I like to cram a lot of theme materials into my puzzles.  He’s probably right.  Not all of my puzzles are theme heavy, but I’ll probably keep doing at least some number of theme heavy puzzles.  As for theme answers I discarded, I considered THE FED’S BERNANKE for BEN, but that just wasn’t as much funs as SEQUEL TO WILLARD.  Plus Ben Bernanke retired so that answer would have been outdated.

What's the trouble spot for you in the gridding/filling process? Tricky to deal with tons of entries that intersect at least two theme entries, yet this 74-worder is very smooth.

Usually I’m very careful and spend a long time selecting fun long down entries to intersect my theme answers.  I try to have 4 or more down entries of length 8 or more.  For this puzzle I didn’t do that, because there was so much theme material, but usually I do.  I think it’s important to revise, revise, revise.  When I finish filling a grid, I never clue it and send it in right away.  I let it sit for at least a week or two, sometimes even months or years, and then I come back to it later, and try to remove any fill that I think is stinky.  I first built this grid in 2012, but I didn’t finish it and send it to Rich until late 2014.  Another way I revise is to send it to a collaboration partner, ask them if they’ll collaborate on it with me, and ask them to remove the stinky fill for me, just to get someone else to add their creativity to it.  Now, some collaboration partners won’t want to do that, because they want to be in on the whole puzzle from the beginning, but some will do it if they really like the theme.  The key thing is to never settle on a fill just because you finished filling the grid.  You should revise it and make it better.

Tell us a bit about yourself. What's your background? And how did you get into crossword construction?

My father was in the Air Force, so we moved around a lot when I was growing up, so I didn’t grow up in one place.  I graduated from high school in Fairfield, CA, and went to college at UC Davis.  I have an undergraduate degree in math.  I’ve always enjoyed math and puzzles.  When I was a kid I worked a lot of jigsaw puzzles on rainy weekends and would do word search puzzles on long car trips.  I was inspired to start constructing crosswords by the movie “Wordplay.”  I saw Merl Reagle doing it in the movie and I thought, “Oh, I could do that!”  I was right, I was able to do it, but it was a lot harder than I thought it would be.  There was a lot more to learn in order to get good at it than I originally imagined.

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

That’s a tough question.  That’s like asking what type of music is good.  I like all kinds of music.  I like AC/DC, but I also like the Indigo Girls, and U2, which are all very different from each other.  So I guess I like lots of different kinds of crossword puzzle themes too.  For themes, I always enjoy a style of theme that hasn’t been done before, or something with a visual element to it, where the arrangement of black squares is related to the theme.  For fill, I keep a list of shorter fill words that have never been used in a crossword puzzle before, at least according to cruciverb.com, and I try to use one or two of those in a puzzle when I can.  I think the best fill words are ones for which you can write a clever clue that hasn’t been used before.  So it’s not the fill word itself that makes it good fill, it’s the clue you write for it.  I try to minimize the use of 3-, 4-, and 5-letter words that start with E, because it seems like they’ve all been overused, but you can’t totally avoid them.

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

I enjoy filling the most.  I try lots of different grid patterns and lots of different long down fill before I settle on anything.  I have a lot of patience for it, so I try lots of different possibilities early before I lock into anything.  Sometimes I get up very early on a Saturday or Sunday, make my coffee, sit in front of the computer, and start filling something, and pretty soon two hours have slipped by and it feels like only a half hour.  I kind of get into a zone.  For themes, I get ideas in the car listening to the news and driving to and from work, listening to people’s conversations, and when I’m watching movies.  I watch a lot of foreign films, so I’m always on the lookout for interesting 15-letter expressions in the subtitles.  I like writing clues too, but it’s definitely the hardest part of the process.  I have tons of unclued grids laying around, probably 50 or more.  So when I decide to clue a puzzle, I go through all of those unclued 
grids and pick the one I like the best.

What kind of reference tools do you use for crossword construction & cluing? You had "Var." in your original SAREE clue, yes? :-)

I use crossword compiler software for constructing.  For reference tools, I use google, xwordinfo.com, cruciverb.com, wikipedia.org for sports history and geography references, imdb.com for movie and TV references, allmusic.com for music references, there are tons more.  I don’t own an OED, although I’ve asked for one for Christmas before.  As for SAREE, I originally had SAUCE as that entry, but Rich asked me to revise that corner, because I had A RIB at 60-Across, which he wanted me to remove.  When I did the new version, the one that’s being published, SAUCE became SAREE and A RIB became IVAN.

Besides crosswords, what else do you do for fun?

I live in Burlingame, California, which is a suburb of San Francisco, south of San Francisco near the San Francisco airport.  I have a wife named Helen and two kids named Tim (age 13) and Kate (age 11).  I work for a software company in Silicon Valley.  When I’m not solving or constructing crossword puzzles I like to go to the gym, watch movies, and walk the dogs.  I like to watch my son Tim play baseball.  I volunteer with a community theater organization called Pied Piper Players in which my daughter Kate is active.  I play the bass guitar in a cover band called Keeping Our Day Jobs.  I’ve been in the same band with the same 5 other people since 1996, except for a sax player change, but we’re not as active as we used to be.  I stay pretty busy. 

1 comment:

Lemonade714 said...

One of my favorite parts of the Corner is getting insight into the constructors through C.C.'s interviews.

I wonder if Kevin ever has one of his unclued grids include a theme that someone else publishes while the puzzle waits. Coming up with a creative clue is such fun.

Thanks KC and C.C.