Tuesday 17 April 2012

All About Steve

As promised, we have a special guest with us this week: give it up one time for Mr. Steven Riley. I met Steve a few months back when we both started constructing for Campus Crosswords. He's been turning out consistently astounding puzzles throughout the semester, and with a tight and very well-reviewed NYT debut a few Fridays back (check it: NYT, 3/23/12) Steve is certainly a constructor to watch. (***Late-breaking update: Steve also has tomorrow's (Wed Apr 18) NYT puzzle! Also, Campus Crosswords constructor/editor Milo Beckman has today's, and it's a gooder***). Let's see what the man has to say for himself, shall we:

Peter: Let’s start with your background outside of puzzles. Tell me about yourself: vocation, avocations, A/S/L, hopes and dreams, etc.

Steve: I’m a self-employed tutor who’s trying to make the transition to a career in clinical psychology. I’m a 31 year old dude who lives in San Francisco with my lovely gf Erica and my crazy cat Banshee. As I write this, she (the cat) is running circles around the living room.

P: What got you into puzzles, and how long have you been at it?

S: I think of myself as a problem solver first and foremost. I get nerd-sniped at the drop of a hat. So, crossword solving came pretty naturally to me. About six months after I started solving them, I remember dropping the word SYZYGY into a puzzle and thinking “man, I’ve gotten better at this.” The next step was building them. I created one as a holiday present for Erica and then tried making a few more just for fun. This was about two years ago, and since then I’ve written about 50 or 60 total.

P: Where have you been published?

S: On 3/23 I had my NYT debut. It was a wide open themeless that I was very proud of. Also, I’m one quarter of the Campus Crosswords syndicate. You should be familiar with them, since you’re another quarter. :) We publish in the Harvard Crimson. I’ve also written a couple of puzzles for weddings, and I had one puzzle that was commissioned by a company I used to work for called vibrantBrains. HYPOTHALAMUS is not a good puzzle entry, but you do what you get paid to do, right?

P: Whose work do you admire as a constructor and enjoy as a solver?

S: As a solver, I look for Patrick Berry’s tagline. I think that guy really has it dialed in as to what makes an enjoyable solve. His themes are never boundary-pushing, his themeless puzzles are never flashy, but every square in every one of his grids flows together like melted chocolate. In terms of construction, I admire Joe Krozel. He’s willing to take an idea to its logical extreme even if it’s risky. I think back on puzzles that stand out from the crowd, and pretty much every one of them belongs to Krozel. Remember the LIES puzzle? Well, if not, here it is.

P: Tell me about your approach to construction. What tools do you use, what do you do with a deadline and a lack of ideas, what qualities do you look for in a seed entry or long fill, etc?

S: After about three puzzles filled by hand, I decided to write my own crossword filling software. Because its mine, I have access to the guts and am constantly tweaking the way it fills. I get wordlists from random sources like Wiktionary, so I’m constantly able to fill a grid with fresh phrases. In terms of themes, I prefer stuff related to math, letter patterns, and the geometry of the grid. That kind of thing is easy for me. What’s hard for me is wordplay. I find that what I think of as funny is often thought of as bizarre or offensive by others. For instance, I just got a puzzle rejected by Campus Crosswords because it was too raunchy, even though I thought it was hilarious. As far as I know, that’s the only puzzle that has been rejected by Campus Crosswords. :) For long fill, I basically look for something that is scrabbly and is a bit incongruous to put into a crossword puzzle. The way I see it, crosswords have a bit of a mystic aura surrounding them. It is very common for people to stay away from them because they’re “not smart enough”. Because of this, crosswords are seen as very high brow and very special. So, putting in common and slangy entries can throw off that sense of mysticism and bring the puzzle back to earth. I mean stuff like OH SNAP, or GET BENT, or CRAPOLA. One of the best phrases I ever put into a puzzle was LAME JOKES. It’s scrabbly and has a endearing but common quality to it. Of course, sometimes I’ll go just for pure scrabbliness. One of these times I’m going to fit BLIZZARD OF OZZ into one of our 11x13 grids.

P: The ACPT has taught me that constructors run the gamut as far as solving ability goes. How are you as a solver?

S: I find that I don’t like solving crosswords alone. It’s a team sport for me. With a partner of above average skill, I find that we can get through a Saturday NYT in about 20 minutes, and can get through a Sunday in 30 to 40. I don’t know what that says about me though. :) If I try to tackle anything harder than a Wednesday by myself I end up having a miserable time.

P: What are your thoughts on eye-catching/wide-open grids, convention-shirking themes/gimmicks, etc.? Is it all about the solver, or do you think that grids and gimmicks that push the boundaries and challenge constructors are important as well?

S: It’s definitely NOT all about the solver. It’s all about what you can get away with as a constructor without pissing off your solvers. They’re willing to deal with a certain amount of crap, but anything past that and you’ll hear from them. Personally, I find wide-open grids to be passe. Once there gets to be a convex section of grid that’s about 5x5 or larger, the only letters that will fill that section are the 1-point scrabble letters. Those letters are boring and they have no punch. If someone could create a 60-entry (or lower) grid with a 1.6 (or higher) scrabble average and not overrun the thing with cheater squares, I would rethink my position on open grids. I think the closest to that goal was this gem by Raymond C Young. However, most open grids just don’t have any real feeling to them. I’ll take a punchy 72-worder any day over a dramatically open 54-word Frank Longo monstrosity. As for gimmicks, I feel that they are important in order to prevent solver fatigue. If every theme were replace-a-letter-with-another-letter, solvers would get bored and move on to a different outlet. It’s important to play with the rules every once in awhile in order to figure out which of them are actually important. For instance, were it not for some dude who thought “Only one letter in a box? Screw you!”, we would never have had this beauty (which was Will Shortz’s very first publication as editor).

P: Do you have any specific construction or publication goals that you’re aiming for?

S: My last goal is to get a second themeless into the NYT with stacks of 15s on top and bottom and only 21 black squares. For some reason those numbers are very important to me.

P: Even among the small number of your puzzles I’ve seen, there has been a lot of variety: quote/joke themes, a rebus, and a lipogram, in addition to simpler letter-addition/removal themes. Do you make a concerted effort to try different styles, or do you just go with whatever comes to mind?

S: Thanks for noticing! I actually had to look up “lipogram”. :) I get a lot of inspiration by learning the lore of construction and trying to outdo the master constructors. I’m very competitive. For instance, once I saw that Bob Klahn had created this puzzle, I decided I needed to do better. Of course, I couldn’t. :) But that didn’t stop me from wasting a bunch of time trying. That’s how I’ve learned my limits as a constructor. Now I have a good intuitive idea of what might work and what probably won’t. So now, I focus more on what would make a good effect, or how to reinterpret a phrase to deliberately bend its meaning, rather than aiming for a specific type of puzzle. I daydream quite a bit, and odd ideas can meld together in unexpected ways when you let your mind wander.

Thanks for the interview, Peter!

Hey, pleasure's all mine. Not least because Steve covered puzzle duty for me this week as well! I suspect his "Keeping the Grid Clean" might be one of the puzzles he had in mind when he said that some might find his sense of humour "bizarre or offensive" but personally I love it. Not for the faint of heart, to be sure, but the ostensibly puerile theme is masterfully executed, and there's a brilliant revealer at the end to tie it all elegantly together. Enjoy!

More words, crossed and otherwise, next Tuesday.

Puzzle: Keeping the Grid Clean
Rating: XW-18A
Download the PDF and PUZ files here, or solve or download the Across Lite puzzle and/or software from the Java app below.

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