Aug 6, 2016

Interview with David Liben-Nowell

David Liben-Nowell has appeared in our blog a few times. He kindly invited me and our local constructors to Carleton College when Matt Ginsberg, creator of Dr. Fill, visited Minnesota in 2013. 

Left to Right: George Barany, David Liben-Nowell, Matt Ginsberg, C.C. & Tom Pepper

Today is David's LA Times debut, but his puzzles have appeared in The New York Times, New York Sun & Games magazine. He was also a contributing constructor to the past four Minnesota Crossword Tournament and created this fantastic puzzle in 2015.

I mentioned the seed entries when I blogged Kevin Christian's puzzle last Saturday, you can read from David's interviews that the seed entries are not always the longest & removing one or two black squares can cause a wholesale change in the grid fill.

I often find myself ditching the second or third seed entries in themeless grids as I just can not find clean fill. Did you have to discard any of your original seeds in today's grid?

Yes ... though actually the grid pattern changed at the same time that I ditched one seed entry.  The original version of this puzzle had four vertical 10s as seeds (5-, 10-, 25-, and 26-Down), but what's now the 20-Down square was black (so what's now the horizontal 15 was a 9+5).  I ended up feeling like the grid was a little too closed in, so I tried removing that black square and refilling from scratch, and, luckily, it worked out when I ditched the fourth 10.  (Aside from three of the four seeds [5-, 25-, and 26-Down], literally only three other entries in the entire grid survived when I refilled -- OLD, LOUTS, and S AND P.)

What were the trouble spots in the filling process? Top middle seems to be thorny enough that you had to add a cheater square there. 

The top middle *was* rough, with multiple entries that I'd rather have avoided.  Actually both the NW and SE corners weren't so easy to fill either:  I worked pretty hard to try to get rid of partials and abbreviations, but what you see was the best fill that I found after a lot of searching.

Even with two cheaters, you still only had five 3-letter entries. Is limiting 3-letter answers an important part of your themeless filling philosophy?

Not explicitly.  If I have 3s, I have 3s.  It's probably a bad habit of mine, but I tend to be willing to accept some cruddier shorter entries if it lets me get livelier longer entries -- I'd almost always take a trade of a couple less-than-ideal 3s and 4s in exchange for an interesting multiword phrase as a 7 or 8.  You can probably see that in the N/NW section:  4-D, 5-D, 16-A, and 19-A were enough for me to accept several lesser short entries.

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

Honestly, not that much.  Themed or themeless, I still start with the longest fill entries, and try to plug in the most interesting entries (preferably multiword phrases) I can find for those entries -- and then hope I can make everything around it work.

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

Lots and lots of websites.  I'll typically look at an online dictionary and thesaurus to try to brainstorm punny clues -- I try to avoid looking at databases of existing clues until after I've come up with something myself -- but otherwise I end up doing a lot of nonauthoritative reading (e.g., Wikipedia) to try to get a grasp on the entry.  I think I clue pretty slowly, but for me it's one of the most interesting parts of construction.  I might spend 30+ minutes of online research into something totally unusable as a clue, but at least I learned something.  Just as an example, the clue that I submitted for 13-Across ["King Harald Bluetooth (namesake of the communications protocol), for one"] was related to a fact that I'd heard at pub trivia once ... Rich was totally right to change it, but that was a fun 20 minutes I spent digging into that fact.  [If you're interested:]

Can you tell us a bit about background? How did you get into crossword solving and later on construction?

Grad school!  Crossword puzzles turned out to be just the distraction that I needed from research when it wasn't exactly going gangbusters.  I started constructing with a grad school apartmentmate, Ryan O'Donnell, while we were sitting around our apartment's living room; it seemed like a natural extension of solving, and we eventually started to get the hang of it and got a couple of co-constructed puzzles published in the NYT.

Besides crosswords, what else do you do for fun?

A little of this and a little of that.  Reading, relaxing and bantering with friends, playing in random sports leagues.  After I moved to Minnesota for a job a few years back, I started curling -- it's a hoot as long as you don't take yourself too seriously while you're playing.


Anonymous said...

Last week's freestyle has a boatload of three letter words.

Lemonade714 said...

It is nice to finally find someone who loves creating clues.
Thanks David and C.C.

desper-otto said...

C.C., who's that lying on his side on the table in blue jeans and purple shirt with his back to the camera?

C.C. Burnikel said...

There is a bag and a coat on the table. I think both of them are Matt's. No one's lying.