, pub-2774194725043577, DIRECT, f08c47fec0942fa0 L.A.Times Crossword Corner: Interview with George Barany


Jan 23, 2016

Interview with George Barany

Many of our blog regulars are familiar with George Barany, who often entertains us with puzzles from his expansive Barany and Friends group. Some of you are friends with George off the blog.

I first met George when Andrea Carla Michaels visited Minnesota in the summer of 2013. His enthusiasm and passion for crosswords are infectious. George's "Breaking the Code" puzzle for the Chronicle of Higher Education is truly ingenious & innovative.

Today marks George's LA Times debut. He has been published by The New York Times & The Wall Street Journal

I imagine you guys completed the middle quad-stack first, then extended to the top and bottom?

It's an honor to be making my Los Angeles Times crossword construction debut in collaboration with one of my cruciverbal heroes, Martin Ashwood-Smith. As many crossword enthusiasts are aware, MAS has pioneered and championed very wide open grids featuring initially intimidating, but ultimately always fair, triple and quadruple-stacked arrangements.

Over the past two years, MAS and I have developed some novel strategies to facilitate the construction of quad-stack puzzles with interesting answers beyond A_LOT_ON_ONE'S_PLATE, RUSSIAN_ROULETTE, SCARLET_TANAGERS, and A_TEENAGER_IN_LOVE,  among others that may have once been cutting edge, but are now greeted with yawns and no small measure of derision. Far be it for me to give away all our tricks, but suffice it to say that the puzzle you are seeing today is the second one to appear in the mainstream media (the other appeared in the New York Times on September 27, 2014), while more are in the queue or have already appeared on my Barany and Friends website.  And yes, we need to discover the central quads first, and then build our grids around them. 

Where were the trouble spots in your construction? 
Based on a review of my notes, e-mail correspondence, and computer files, it seems that the heavy lifting on this puzzle occurred over an intense week-long flurry of activity in mid-July of 2014, involving at least a dozen distinct drafts.  An early concern was CERO and ESTO, both short foreign words, adjacent to each other in the grid, but this was settled (see next paragraph) by creative cluing.  A breakthrough was to discover that ALTMANESQUE (not in any database!) could be run through the grid, and finding ALMOST_THERE to balance it, and then recognizing that ALICE_B could hold together an area below the quad [an earlier version was anchored by SPARE_ROOMS balanced by GIVES_A_HOOT, crossing THE_GRATEFUL_DEAD above the quad and ULTIMATE_FRISBEE below it, held together by O_ROMEO].  Also, we looked at multiple versions that did not include grid-spanning entries above and below the quad.  

Once MAS and I agreed on the fill, there was the usual brainstorming and give-and-take on the clues, which took about a week.  Whenever I received a 3- or 4-paragraph e-mail from MAS, in the middle of the night, that started with the words "In the spirit of friendly debate ..." I knew that whatever plans I had for the next several hours would need to be deferred.  Then, once we heard back from Rich Norris, we still had to make some small fixes to the grid to meet his exacting standards.  Specifically, HAS_A_HOME and RENEW, crossing MEWL, as you see in the published puzzle, were originally HAS_A_HOPE and RENEE, crossing PEEL. 

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

I was born in Hungary into a family of scientists, grew up in New York City, and have been a member of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities Department of Chemistry faculty since 1980.  More about me personally and professionally, as well as about my family, can be found here (directly, and following further links). 

I always had an affinity for creating puzzles and games, and started to dabble in crossword construction back in the late 1990's through my personal and professional friendship with Charles Deber, one of the all-time greats.   In the mid-2000's, I became a cyberfriend of, and crossword collaborator with, the brilliant Michael Shteyman.  After my children went off to college, there were large gaps in my discretionary time that had previously been taken up attending their concerts, science fairs, and sporting events, so I decided to try to raise my level of commitment to the art of crossword construction, at least in terms of quantity. 

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

What you see today is atypical of my work.  I like themes that skew towards my particular interests in science, math, music, sports, and current events.  I also enjoy creating "tribute" puzzles, which rarely make it into the MSM [a notable exception being this Chronicle of Higher Education puzzle, edited by the amazing Patrick Berry, marking a significant centenary]. Very few things in life compare to the thrill of seeing one's name spelled out inside a crossword grid, so I think that I've been able to make any number of family members, friends, colleagues, and casual acquaintances quite happy.

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

I tend to go for theme density at the expense of "squeaky-clean" fill, and often have to be reined in by more level-headed collaborators.  I do enjoy creating themes that are edgy (within reason), quirky, and/or scholarly, and I'm glad when it's possible to find theme entries that interlock.  The best parts of construction are the social aspects of interacting with my crossword friends, and learning from them.

Elaborating just a bit, theme development is fun and demands much in terms of creativity; filling is mostly mechanical but it can be challenging to do well; and cluing is, relatively speaking, the easiest ... I tend to be a fairly good editor/organizer, and by involving my group of friends, some rather high quality clues emerge. 

What kind of reference tools do you use for crossword construction & cluing? 

When I got serious about crossword construction about a decade or more ago, my A-list collaborators handled grid design and filling, and we jury-rigged spreadsheet software like Excel.  Words were introduced manually, based on searches of the invaluable and databases.  For more broad-ranging searches, we used  

About five years ago, I invested in Crossword Compiler (ccw), which certainly helped our productivity, and also ended the sorts of mechanical errors that slowed down earlier work.  One more "must-have" resource for constructors is the free database established and maintained by Matt Ginsberg.  By now, I have a personalized word/clue list consisting only of entries that have already been vetted by my friends group.  Again, these improve productivity, but there is no substitute for human creativity and ingenuity, coupled with an unsparing  commitment to accuracy and high standards, like avoiding duplications and minimizing "crossword-ese." 

Besides crosswords, what else do you do for fun?

Our motto is, we put the fun into dysfunctional.  My work is fun, I love and am devoted to my family, I have wonderful students (including alumni), and great friends, and I partake in the local sports scene and cultural life.  Even non-glamorous events or aggravations like trips to the dentist or doctor, or getting stuck in an elevator, can be the inspiration for new puzzles.


mesewprettyoneday said...

Thanks for the peek behind the curtain... I enjoyed the backstory as much as I did the puzzle!

Lemonade714 said...

Yes I have enjoyed following all the links. Minnesota has given us much to be thankful for. We appreciate it George and C.C.

tawnya said...

Thank you! I always look forward to George's insight on the blog and follow him on Facebook too. Very insightful and entertaining!

George Barany said...

I appreciate the nice comments. We have a wonderful community of crossword constructors with roots in the Twin Cities, and you can click here to see pictures from some of our get-togethers.

I'm also pleased to announce to the regular visitors to C.C.'s LAT Crossword Corner that we have a new contest, called Eliminating the Competition. I hope that many of you give it a try, and have a chance to win any number of fun prizes.