Feb 17, 2016

Interview with Todd Gross

Todd Gross is a friend I wish I could meet someday. Todd has been incredibly kind and supportive of our blog and my construction efforts from the very start.

Today is our third puzzle from Todd, who made the very first Fireball crossword. Todd also has 13 puzzles published by the New York Times.  His works have also appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The Chronicle of Higher Education. In the past few years, Todd has been helping David Steinberg with the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project.

Todd lives in Mesquite, NV
I did not do research. I presume you sifted through quite a few *D*D*D* movies and decided to go with three 15-letter only?

I looked at some lists of movies to find ones with three D's in their titles.  There are surprisingly few of them.  I didn't start out looking for 15-letter movie titles, but finding CROCODILE DUNDEE and INDEPENDENCE DAY, both of which I really wanted to use, I tried to find another 15-letter movie and was lucky to find STAND AND DELIVER.

By the way, did you notice the films are in chronological order?
  
Did you have a low-word count in mind when you designed the grid? We don't often see a themeless-style grid with dedicated 51 theme squares. Where were the trouble spots for you in the filling process?

I wasn't intending to make a low word count puzzle, but the way I construct, I usually start with a lower word count grid and add blocks if I can't find a way to fill the grid cleanly.  With THREED on the bottom row, it was natural to have a stack of 8-letter entries on the other side.  But that wasn't working well so I added the pair of black squares to make the first and last across entries 7-letters long.  And I was able to make that work (Rich didn't ask me to revise my grid and didn't make any changes).

The rest of the grid seems pretty normal to me.  There's even several 3-letter entries in the upper left/lower right corners, which I usually try to avoid.  Having three 15-letter theme answers helps keep the word count low.
 
What's your background? Who introduced you to crossword solving and later on construction?

I discovered puzzles when I was young.  I'm not sure how I was introduced, I just remember seeing them on magazine stands and eventually buying them.  But I didn't like crosswords, they were too hard!  I remember being excited when Dell Pencil Puzzles & Word Games first came out, because it didn't have any crosswords!  Alas, I'm not sure what year that was, mid-late 70's sometime.

I don't have much memory of crosswords specifically until 2008, when I posted a dorky little crossword (5x5) on Ken Jennings's blog site.  A fellow named Bill MacDonald (see http://www.j-archive.com/showplayer.php?player_id=1285) saw my puzzle and suggested I try making actual publishable crosswords.  So I decided to give it a try.  As you know, there's a lot to learn before you can make publishable puzzles.  I was lucky Will accepted my 3rd submission (I might have given up if I'd had 8 or 10 rejections without any acceptances).  Rich accepted a submission at about the same time.  And I've been making (not always publishing) crossword puzzles ever since.
  
What kind of theme and entries interest you the most and what kind do you try to avoid in your grids?

As a constructor, I'm trying to think of original theme ideas.  These puzzles are more interesting to make than themes you've seen many times before.  Original ideas by their nature don't fit into categories well, but I will say I like puzzles with meta answers.  I'm trying to learn to create good ones, I have more to learn.  I'm generally not big on wordplay themes, because they've been done a lot and there are several constructors that are better at making them than me.

As for entries I like and ones I try to avoid, I don't think I'm unusual there.  I really like trivia, so I like entries like RAYEWRY that are interesting but not very well known.  I also like entries that can be figured out even if they aren't well known (you may not know what a DUCHY is, but you've heard of a duchess and a monarchy, so the word makes sense for its definition).  I really don't want to offend people, so I try to stay away from entries that might bother somebody.  I'm also not fond of phrases that feel like words just spliced together...but they do come in handy sometimes (like 13 Down). 

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

I've found all three of those enjoyable at times and frustrating at other times.  Theme development is probably the most fun because it's more creative and less mechanical...but when you try and try and you can't think of enough theme entries for a puzzle, the mechanical process of cluing can be a delight by comparison.  Filling is somewhere in between, with choosing a grid pattern being creative and filling the grid with words more mechanical.  I'm really working to improve my main word list, because all too often I find ugly entries keep being suggested by Crossword Compiler, and I can't find a good fill.  A better list would definitely make filling more enjoyable.

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

I look up pretty much everything online.  I like using Google autocomplete to help me learn about words/phrases/titles I otherwise wouldn't have known about...though this is pretty tedious to do.  Wikipedia helps me with facts than can allow for interesting clues, onelook.com helps me find entries for specific letter patterns.  When I first started, I spent a lot of time looking at existing clues so I can come up with something different.  Now I only look up clues if I can't think of one (it happens more often than I want to admit).  Matt Ginsberg's clue database is particularly good, but I've also used XWordInfo and cruciverb.com to look up clues.
  
What is the best puzzle you've constructed? Fireball #1? I love that puzzle.

If you saw all of my rejections, you'd know I'm not a great judge of which of my puzzles are good.  I'm still surprised by which ones get accepted and which don't.  Personally, my favorite is my first accepted puzzle: the Sunday New York Times crossword titled LET'S PLAY BINGO.  It's not just my first acceptance, it's rather memorable with the bingo card in the middle.  Jim Horne had to rewrite his grid display code to handle an image in the center like that.

I'm also amazed I got to co-author the NYT puzzle that commemorated the crossword's centennial.  Even better, it was with David Steinberg, who of course spearheaded the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, which clearly shows his interest in crossword history.  But we submitted our puzzle before the project had started, and before I knew how appropriate it would be to share a byline with him.

You're in good company liking my Fireball puzzle.  Amy wrote a nice review on her blog.  And Peter Gordon is especially choosy, since Fireball only publishes one puzzle per week.

Besides crosswords, what else do you do for fun?
 
Since I've already mentioned David's blog, let me say I'm really interested in crossword puzzle history, especially learning about different constructors.  We are an interesting, creative, diverse bunch, who have developed this unusual skill, only a very few making a living from it.  In the old days, about the only feedback you'd get was from editors you submitted to.  Much of my research has been posted on David's blog, but there will be more in the future.  Including an interview I recently did by phone with a constructor who's almost 90 now.

Other than that, I lead a pretty quiet life.  I'm actually on disability because I don't handle stress well.  So I spend a lot of time at home leading a low-stress lifestyle, much of it in bed.  I realize that doesn't sound fun to most people, but it helps me a lot.  When I do have energy, I like traveling to different places.  I also like learning things, hence my interest in trivia.  And, of course, crosswords.

3 comments:

Lemonade714 said...

It is always great to start the day meeting one of our constructors. The work Todd did with others to ave all the old NYT was impressive and helpful. His comments on various blogs including ours have always been very positive and supportive.

Glad to know more about Todd. Thanks C.C.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this interview. Thank you, Todd Gross. It is fascinating how people get into it.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't find any place to report my problem with LA puzzles. I'm about to delete the address from my "favorite places" because quite often I'm almost at the end of the puzzle and it disappears. So frustrating.

Do you know who I could report this to? I would be grateful. Thanks.

patking176@aol.com