Tuesday 12 June 2012

Ladies and Gentlemen, Jeffrey Harris

As you might have guessed, this week we'll get to meet puzzler par excellence Jeffrey Harris. Jeffrey is not only a deadly solver, but a fine constructor as well. He's been at it for close to a decade now, has been regular contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Sun (RIP), and has been published in the NYT and Wall Street Journal as well. Jeffrey has been in touch a number of times lately to provide feedback on the puzzles (mostly in the way of reporting grievous errors, which is always appreciated) and chat about his brand-spanking-new book, Sit & Solve Pop Music Crosswords. 42 mini-puzzles (10x10 mostly, I believe. Dimensions I've never worked with, but you know I love the minis), and at an unbeatable price, if you ask me. There's a sample of one of the puzzles that didn't make it in to the book (so the ones that did must be even better, right?) at Jeffrey's site. Don't be fooled by the diminuitive proportions: cramming that much thematic material into a breathable 10x10 grid with 2 themers could not have been easy, and it's a silky smooth solve nonetheless.

Anyway, I caught up with Jeffrey for a Q&A over the weekend; let's see how it went down:

Peter: Congratulations on your first book! What can solvers expect from it in terms of themes, puzzle styles, difficulty, etc.?

Jeffrey: As they’re only 10x10, most of them have only a pair of theme entries. There are a few puzzles with more, but they’re the minority. Also, there were some pairings I found that were just too nice to worry about pesky concerns like grid symmetry, so the last eight or so puzzles are nonsymmetric. I tried to keep them easy, but only solvers can really say how difficult they are.

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, long fill, or theme, etc?

J: I use Crossword Compiler with a hand-ranked wordlist, though I have made grids by hand and sometimes still do, if I feel like it. I like it when themes feel “complete”--if I solve a puzzle with three theme entries, I want that to be not because there was no room for a fourth entry, but because there is no fourth entry. As for long fill, no surprises--give me a multi-word phrase with interesting letters and I’m happy.

P: Whose work do you admire as a constructor?

J: Oh, that’d be a long list. Patrick Berry, Trip Payne, Frank Longo, Mike Shenk, BEQ, and Merl Reagle would probably be on everyone’s list; in addition, there are a number of constructors including Todd McClary, Eric Berlin, and Adam Cohen who I don’t see as much buzz/chatter about but who are definitely talented puzzlemakers who I try to emulate.

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?

J: As a solver, I love being able to look back at a puzzle and marvel at the effort and skill put into the construction--this includes, however, the effort and skill needed to keep a puzzle clean. Quad-stacks are impressive, but if they’re filled to the brim with partials, abbreviations, dupes, and bogus phrases they become less so. And it’s not like these things are necessary! Patrick Berry, Frank Longo, and most recently Matt Jones have all made quad stacks that are much cleaner than the ones that have been published in the Times these past few months, and to me, those are exponentially more fun to solve and to admire after the fact.

P: Where do see your puzzling career going? Do you have any specific construction or publication goals that you’re aiming for?

J: Not beyond “making enough puzzles to keep a roof over my head” at this point, heh. I’d like to have a non-pocket-size book at some point, but that’ll be a long way off I think.

P: How do you think that the existence of a puzzle blogging community has affected the quality and/or style of puzzles, if at all?

J: I don’t know. It’s certainly made puzzle solving a more communal activity, which is a good thing.

P: I understand you’re a pretty shit-hot solver (a Lollapuzzoola champ if I’m not mistaken?). Which puzzle outlets do you hit up for a solid challenge? Other than traditional crosswords, which sorts of puzzles do you enjoy?

J: For challenge, both the Washington Post themeless and Fireball are hard to beat. I also do Matt Gaffney’s contest...week 5 puzzles can sometimes be even tougher than Posts or Fireballs. If you know how to solve cryptic crosswords and are looking or a real workout, I recommend the cryptics of Kevin Wald and Mark Halpin.

Thanks for the opportunity to be interviewed, and I look forward to solving more of your puzzles as you post them!

Pleasure's all mine, Jeffrey. It's always nice to get acquainted with other puzzlers, and so you can expect more interviews in the future. Feel like you've got something to share with the literally tens of adoring Cross Nerd fans? Hit me up and we'll shoot the shit.

On to today's puzzle. Dug out a bit of an oldie this week. I devised and polished the theme with the intention of whipping it into a NYT submission. Didn't even get as far as filling the grid before discovering that a very similar theme was done back in '06. Although none of the same entries are used, the idea was similar enough that it didn't seem worth waiting 6 months for the almost certain rejection, so I shelved it. Glad I did, though, because I needed a ready-made themed puzzle stat (too many themelesses recently), since I've been spending any and all of my free puzzling time working on both my submission to the 20 under 30 contest and my upcoming month of metas. Wait, what? That's right, you heard right: a month of metas. Between Trip Payne's jaw-dropping "Remote Possibilities" extravaganza, Pete Muller's (so far) excellent Muller Monthly Music Meta, and the usual dose of MGWCC puzzles, I've been more than a little inspired to try my hand at a meta-puzzle. After a little brainstorming, I've come up with what I think are four solid puzzle ideas, which I'll be running in the fashion of a month's worth of MGWCC. And there will be prizes! (mostly things of no monetary value). Tune in next week for more details.

More words, crossed and otherwise, next Tuesday.

Puzzle: How Goes It?
Rating: XW-PG

Download the PDF file here and the PUZ file here, or solve or download the Across Lite puzzle and/or software from the embedded app below.

1 comment:

Howard B said...

Too me long enough to get here. Man, I got stuck at the border crossing forever. Why would they search through my puzzle books?
Sorry about that. I'll be sure to take some real beer home on the way out.

Fun stuff, especially enjoying the clues. Looking forward to trying out the metapuzzles.
- Howard