Aug 29, 2009

Interview with Michael Wiesenberg

Remember this Michael Wiesenberg Saturday puzzle? He stacked six long fills at top and bottom of the grid, four of them spanning the grid. GIRL, INTERRUPTED is such an excellent entry.

Mr. Wiesenberg started contributing to the LA Times in early 2008, and all of the 7 published puzzles are themeless. He probably has his own long list of 15-letter movie titles, TV series, celebrity names, or just common phrases.

Not often do we have a constructor with a Wikipedia entry. Michael Wiesenberg has one. Merl Reagle has one too. Hope you enjoy the interview. A pleasant surprise for me.

What is the seed entry of this puzzle? Which part of the grid gave you the most trouble during the construction?

This puzzle would never have come about nor would it have been published were it not for my persistence and Rich Norris's patience and kind feedback. The puzzle went through eight iterations. The original puzzle had 72 words. Rich didn't like the pattern nor was he happy with several of the entries. Rich had already published several of my puzzles, so he must have thought I had some salvageable capabilities, and was kind enough in his rejection to enumerate his objections. To increase the efficacy and interest of the puzzle, I removed two blocks, lowering the word count to 70. This changed the essential nature of the puzzle, so I basically started the fill all over. The first submission had SPIRAL STAIRCASE as the 15-letter entry. Rich objected to too many partials. I hadn't considered three of them actually to be partials; I thought they were standalone phrases. I didn't think A HAIR ("tiny bit"), ACT TO ("Perform in a certain way"), or I SAID were partials. But of course the editor is the final arbiter in such matters, and Rich's instincts are good. To remove the partials, I started again from scratch, this time with THREE MUSKETEERS. Again Rich raised good objections; again I started over, this time with the present 15-letter entry (HOSTILE TAKEOVER). Rich liked the fill, but had reservations on some of the entries. He suggested a change to clear up a problem. I went with Rich's suggestion and also changed a few other entries, and ended up with what I hope is a good fill with interesting entries and no obscurities.

No particular part of the puzzle gave me more trouble than any other. I just kept juggling entries around, trying to keep them all lively, until I got a good fill. Since it's a themeless puzzle, I could redo entire sections to meet Rich's objections.

How would you describe your style? Why do you prefer constructing themeless over themed puzzles?

My style in themeless puzzles is to have as many 15-word entries as possible or as few entries -- or both. I like "stacks" of 15s. I have had puzzles published with as many as 10 15s and as low a word count as in the low 60s. Working within those constraints, I then try to fit in as many lively entries as possible, among them as many phrases as I can. I don't prefer themelesses over themed puzzles. I have different criteria for themed puzzles. In the latter, I try to be very specific and have the entries as closely linked as possible. I like punny themes. I would rather have four or five entries than three, but if three work well, I would certainly prefer three good entries to more that are only so-so.

What is your background and how did you get into crossword construction?

I originally started constructing crossword puzzles long before software was available to assist, in fact, long before personal computers were even generally available. I had several puzzles published in Master and Quality (Quinn Publications) in the '60s. I did these by hand on graph paper, assisted by the letter cubes of a 3D Scrabble-like game whose name I can't recall. There were some 100 cubes, each with the same letter on all sides, which cubes players would place one at a time in a standup grid between them, trying to form words with each successive addition. I juggled the cubes on a flat surface to fill in grid sections. When I successfully completed a section, I would write the letters in the graph paper. Even with that help, I would fill dozens of grids in constructing one puzzle, and devote many hours to the task. I calculated that based on the time it took to construct a puzzle and the low pay rate at the time I earned under 25 cents an hour. In the '60s, the main constructors of crossword puzzles were prison inmates, for whom such a non-cost-effective use of their time was not counterproductive.

I ceased constructing for many years. I worked as a technical writer in the computer field. As such, I had access to and knowledge of many kinds of software. When I heard of Crossword Compiler, I decided to reenter cruciverbalism. For five years I constructed a monthly puzzle for PuzzlePlanet.com. For seven years I did a monthly puzzle for PokerPages.com. All those puzzles had crossword themes, and can be seen here: http://www.pokerpages.com/interactive/crossword/crosswords.htm

I contributed 24 puzzles to "The Everything Crossword Challenge Book." For two years I did a puzzle regularly for "Advance for Nurses," a national publication. For five years I did a monthly puzzle for "LA Direct," a slick magazine published in Studio City, CA, for a Southern California audience, with puzzles specifically about that region (local beaches, nearby cities, movie studio-related entries, etc.). I did a weekly puzzle for six months for another online site.

I do more than construct puzzles. I have written five books and am working on two more. I have a monthly column in Card Player magazine. I also construct a monthly puzzle for Poker Player magazine.

What is a perfect puzzle to you? Who are your favorite constructors?

There ain't no such animal as a perfect puzzle. There are good puzzles and bad puzzles. Bad puzzles seem to be more common. These are often found in specialty magazines, particularly those that are not in the top echelons of publications. They have too many words (78+ in a 15x15), unkeyed squares, two-letter words, and too many three-letter words. They stretch too hard to fit in theme entries. Also in the bad puzzle category are most of the puzzles created by computers with little or no human intervention. These have no spark of originality, no sparkle. Good themed puzzles are characterized by clever linking of the theme entries. I like rebus puzzles, letter additions or subtractions that form new punny entries, and clever leaps of intuition. Good themelesses are, I think, characterized by the Fridays and Saturdays of the NYT and the LAT. Among my favorite constructors are Gorski, Salomon, Reagle, and Longo.

Besides crossword construction, what else do you do for fun?

Besides crossword construction, I write fiction and nonfiction for publication. I also hike and cycle.

20 comments:

Dennis said...

Wow. Now this is one talented man. A most impressive interview, and certainly an eye-opener as to how hard it can be to create and publish one of these things. Just a great read; thanks to Michael for somehow finding the time (can't possibly sleep). C.C., as always, great job.

Jeff said...

A great interview with lots of interesting insights. Thank you, Michael.

KQ said...

CC, Another good interview. I love reading these. Do you ask constructors to do these with you? How do you contact them and how do you come up with the questions you are going to ask? I think they are so interesting. I have enjoyed doing crosswords so much more since I have found your blog. I learn so much. Thanks again.

kazie said...

Michael and c.c.,
Thank you both for a very interesting interview. Dennis is right--I don't know where he finds the time for anything else!

Crockett1947 said...

Another great interview. Thank you C.C. and Michael Wiesenberg!

Anonymous said...

Michael Wiesenberg - keep 'em coming. Loved today's puzzle.

Karen

Anonymous said...

are we supposed to know one bc, bovary, suk? this puzzle is impossible.

WM said...

Michael and C.C....excellent interview and it sounds like Michael worked as long to create this puzzle as it took me to work it out. LOL

I really like understanding better the process behind the construction as it adds to the overall enjoyment of solving.

Thank you to both of you.

Lemonade714 said...

More insight and more history, thank you both. It really is fascinating how varied the backgrounds of contructors are, how revealing they are, how helpful all of which mirror our own little band.

C. C. said...

KQ,
I am pleased to hear that you've been enjoying the interviews. Since my oral English is just horrible, I contact the constructors via emails, sometimes with the help of our editor Rich Norris. And all of them have been very gracious and helpful. Mr. Wiesenberg is no exception. As for questions, I just ask what I've been curious about them and their works.

C. C. said...

WM,
We've had constructors with IT/Law/Math/Music/Literature background. Have never seen a painter constructor. I wonder how your painting mirrors constructing a crossword.

Kazie, Lemonade et al,
Were you surprised that "the main constructors of crossword puzzles were prison inmates" in the '60s? I was. Very.

embien said...

What a wonderful interview with Michael Wiesenberg. I knew I had seen that name before, but couldn't place exactly where (besides crosswords, of course). Turns out that I'm a subscriber to Card Player magazine, so I was very interested to see that link come up in the interview!

c.c., it's so fascinating to read our constructor's thoughts, and you do a great job in focusing the interviews by giving the constructors interesting questions to respond to. Thanks to our gracious constructors for these interviews, and, of course, to our queen of LAT blogomania.

embien said...

c.c., if you are interested in the fact that prison inmates were often crossword constructors, may I recommend the following book The Meaning of Everything, the story of the construction of the Oxford English Dictionary?

One of the main contributors was a lifelong resident of an insane asylum, so he had plenty of time to work on words.

The book is a masterpiece, and reads nearly like a novel, not the non-fiction treatise which it is.

Chickie said...

Another great interview. Thank you Michael Wiesenberg and C.C. once again for the valuable insights into the construction of the Crosswords that we so enjoy doing every day.

Michael, constructive criticism is always a plus and it seems as though you are very capable of taking that criticism and making the changes necessary for an outstanding puzzle. Not everyone is as accepting.

Dan said...

CC, continued thanks for all the interviews!

Michael, do you have a source for the claim about prison inmates? I believe I've read every available nonfiction book about crosswords, and I've never heard that. But I wasn't around in the 60s, let alone working on crosswords...

Michael Wiesenberg said...

Dan,

I'm sorry, I cannot document my statement about prison inmates being the primary constructors in former years of crossword puzzles. That was just something I read in an article in the '60s (and well before personal computers were used as construction aids). And since I'd read the (supposed) fact in more than one article, I took it as truth.

Michael

Dan said...

Thanks Michael! Interesting, it does make sense, but could also have been a very dry joke. I'll follow up the next time I cross paths with Will Shortz... :) Hope it is (at least semi-)true because that's a great tidbit.
Now to check out those poker puzzles...

Dan said...

I happened to cross paths with Helene Hovanec, and she confirmed the basic gist of the story... plenty of inmate constructors, if not the majority.

C. C. said...

Dan,
I've just informed Michael of your follow-up. Thank you.

Michael Wiesenberg said...

Ah, my spongelike memory has been vindicated.