Jul 24, 2014

Interview with Jeffrey Wechsler

Jeffrey Wechsler calls himself a "cruciverbal Rip Van Winkle". He had three puzzles published by the New York Times in the 1960s, then he took a 40-year break and started making puzzles again in 2009. 

Since Sept 2012, Jeffrey has 26 puzzles published by the LA Times. I love the creativity & spontaneity in his themes & fill. 

How did this theme come to you and what were the other theme entries you also considered but discarded? 

I never really know how most themes occur to me; they often just pop up out of nowhere, while I'm reading, when I'm in bed, while I'm driving (that's dangerous!)  Sometimes themes emerge from a given word or phrase -- in this case it was GOOSENECK LAMP, although I don't know why I was thinking of that term.  This theme specifically required a name of a bird to be followed by a body part, so there weren't many options.  When I had three good ones, I left it there.

I don't recall a 3-themer from you, since your puzzles tend to be heavy in themage.  How did your grid designing & filling approach differ from a 4- or 5-themer grid?

When a grid is relatively light on theme entries, I sometimes use that as an opportunity to attempt the inclusion of long Down entries.  Used properly, they add interest for the solver and constructor alike. When I first submitted this puzzle, it actually included a 15-letter Down entry -- IT'S NOT VERY CLEAR -- going straight down the center!  Rich Norris felt that the phrase was not sufficiently in-the-language, and requested a revision of the grid.  I must admit that Rich has slapped me back into reality a few times on that score, and I've been attempting to moderate (or at least verify) my efforts in that regard.  After all, as Shakespeare wrote about Julius Caesar,  "As he was ambitious, I slew him." 

I was surprised to learn from David's interview that you don't rely on any wordlist and still construct by hand. How long did it take you to fill today's grid? And what tools do you use when you get stuck in a spot?

I don't recall how much time was needed to complete this particular construction.  Filling grids can vary from a few hours to many hours spread over many days for particularly intractable grids.  

I hope the other interview didn't give the idea that I eschew all word lists.  I use Crossword Compiler, which offers wordlists that fit certain given letter patterns for a single word-space.  In David Steinberg's definition, that still qualifies as a "hand-made" grid, because I do not use the Autofill option.  As I noted in that interview, I will not use Autofill; for me, that goes beyond the point of true authorship of a puzzle.  If I can't fill a particular section of a grid between the Crossword Compiler prompts and my own knowledge, that puzzle will remain incomplete.

What kind of themes and fill interest you and what kind do you try to avoid in your puzzles?

I sometimes try to work out themes that create interesting (I hope) variations on standard theme formats, like add or delete a letter (or letters), or words broken between two adjacent words, or a word of which segments become letters that surround the themers.  I've also recently been attempting grids that include visual components that fit within the parameters of the LA Times crossword.  Rich has shown an interest in a few of them, but they needed revision, so we shall see what eventually appears.   My RIVERBEND was one of those puzzles, where river names were found within L-shaped arrangements of circles.  But as you may recall, some sources published the puzzle without circles, and some actually published the puzzle with the river names already filled in.  (Fate dealing another blow against ambition, perhaps?)

If possible, I like to devise a theme that seems sui generis, or at least appears fresh or unusual.  One example is the "THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO SWALLOWED A" puzzle.  Here, again, the idea came out of nowhere  -- I don't know why that children's ditty came into my head.  However, when it did, it fascinated me and became a challenge to accommodate into a puzzle.  As Lemonade noted in his perceptive review, it was a puzzle bound to make solvers take sides -- pro or con.  But I appreciate that Rich Norris accepted it.
I have avoided the theme genre that involves a revealer like NEW BEGINNINGS, leading to themers that start with a word that can follow NEW, like AGE, MEXICO, DEAL, and so on.  For some reason, this seems too simple a format to me, although there is obviously nothing wrong with it. 

I love the clue for MEL OTT [Giant with power] & I'm so happy to see LAURA [Golfer Davies, seven-time Ladies European Tour Order of Merit awardee] finally gets some recognition in crosswords. What reference tools do you use to spice up your clues?
You can probably thank Rich Norris for both of those clues; they weren't mine.  At this point, I don't think I've yet become attuned to the wavelength of LA Times cluing.  I often come up with clues that I think are amusing, clever and fair, but many of them are discarded and replaced.  Given that reality, I should probably hold back on the spice, since my original clues already seem to be overspiced, or at least improperly spiced.  And ironically, given your inquiry, I rarely use any in-depth references to find unusual factoids, beyond Wikipedia ("If it's on the Internet, it must be true!" Yeah, sure), and a few very basic sources.  

I remember our first LAT from you is a themeless grid. Do you still make themeless or have you shifted your attention to themed grids only?

As you know from my David Steinberg interview, I returned to crossword construction after a 40-year hiatus.  In retrospect, it was very odd that I re-entered the puzzle world by trying to create themeless puzzles.  I had a few published (in the New York Times, and Stan Newman's Saturday Stumper).  However, I quickly realized that the level of expertise now prevalent among themeless constructors is so high that it was foolhardy to continue within that format.  Indeed, the themeless category apparently comprises a very large proportion of crossword submissions to major outlets, resulting in a great backlog of that type.  Thus, forgoing the themeless format is practical if I want to see my puzzles published.  It also frees me to search for other interesting theme concepts, and allows more scope for puns and other wordplay.

What puzzles do you solve every day & which constructor's puzzles are most difficult for you to solve?

Most of my effort within the crossword field is now limited to construction.  The only crossword I solve daily is the LA Times (I also solve Sunday New York Times puzzle.)  Because it is now my major outlet, I feel I should maintain direct contact with its themes, daily difficulty levels -- and clues!  I read Diary of a Crossword Fiend to keep up with trends in the other publications.  I attend the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, but do so as a non-competing entrant.  That means I solve the puzzles, but I do not hand in my completed (or incomplete) puzzles for scoring.  Speed-solving doesn't appeal to me; it somewhat undermines my pleasure in working things out at my own pace.  From observation of other participants, I'd say my solving ability is somewhere slightly above the middle of the group. 

(Thanks to Lemonade for making this interview possible.)

Thursday, July 24, 2014 Jeffrey Wechsler

Theme: "Birds of a Feather"

20. Adjustable light source : GOOSENECK LAMP.

38. Donald Sutherland film role : HAWKEYE PIERCE.

55. Carpentry connection : DOVETAIL JOINT.

I have blogged several of Jeffrey's Thursday puzzles now, and love to see his often pun-ny offerings.  I'm not sure how this one ended up on a Thursday, because I finished it in my usual Monday time. The theme seemed pretty Monday-friendly, too. Straightforward compound words at the beginnings of each entry, involving: 1.) A type of bird and 2.) A part of the anatomy. So maybe the fill dictated a more difficult level? Let's check it out...


1. Hit with force : RAM. Nope, still Monday.

4. Group on a dais : PANEL. Not this one, either.

9. Egyptian Peace Nobelist : SADAT. Maybe a little hesitation here between Anwar and SADAT?

14. "Take heed, __ summer comes ...": Shakespeare : ERE. Anyone worth their Shakespeare knows that three letters usually = ERE. Of course, "The Merry Wives of Windsor" is probably in Ol' Man Keith's repertoire.

15. "Just like me" : AS I DO. Maybe a little tricky to parse between "As do I" or AS I DO.

16. Last Olds model : ALERO. We have seen this so many times it almost falls into the "crosswordese" category.

17. Require medication : AIL. I'm just going to skip all the easy ones.

18. Britney Spears hit with the lyric "A guy like you should wear a warning" : TOXIC. I just can't do it...don't make me link it, please??

Call me...

19. Old-fashioned : FUSTY. To echo Tuesday's MUSTY.

23. His face is seen with Powell and Loy on many film posters : ASTA. This seems like a fresh clue for another crossword staple.

24. Rodeo wrestling match participant : STEER.

25. Dedicatory opus : ODE.

28. "Hold your horses!" : NOT YET.

31. Pot holder shape : MITTEN.

33. Medieval slavery : SERFDOM.

37. Gallery array : OILS.

41. Fed. org. researching neuropsychiatry : NIMHNational Institute of Mental Health. I'll give this one to Thursday, but easy enough to suss.

42. Solemn conclusion? : SILENT N.

43. Just about : ALMOST.

45. Got ready, with "up" : GEARED.

49. Classic Pontiac : GTO. Along with the ALERO, it makes frequent appearances in crosswords.

50. Misleading name : ALIAS.

54. Concave landform : DALE.

59. Golfer Davies, seven-time Ladies European Tour Order of Merit awardee : LAURA. Classy lady with an incredible career record.

61. TV comic Kovacs : ERNIE. I can picture him and his ever-present cigar, but for the life of me, I can't remember any of his films or TV shows.

62. Golfer's concern : LIE. They're always afraid that someone will call them a liar for putting a 3 on the scorecard when it was really a 5... (...just kidding!!)

63. Certain campaign managers : AD MEN.

64. Complaints : MOANS.

65. Solution: Abbr. : ANS.

66. Amtrak structure : DEPOT.

67. Tizzies : SNITS.

68. Big Bird fan : TOT.

Well, not too much trouble with the Across-clues.  Did anyone solve by just doing the Downs?


1. "Trust, but verify" president : REAGAN. It was his catchphrase during negotiations with Russia about eliminating intermediate-range missiles. Ironically, it comes from an old Russian proverb.

2. Melodic : ARIOSO. We've seen this often enough, but only once on a Monday. So Thursday scores another one.

3. Giant with power : MEL OTT. Old crossword friend. Nice to see the full name, though.

4. Cracker topper : PÂ.

5. "And she shall bring forth __": Matthew : A SON.

6. Gives a thumbs-down : NIXES.

7. Official order : EDICT.

8. Age of Reason philosopher : LOCKE. Bacon also fits, but this was already filled in by the perps for me.

9. Exotic vacation : SAFARI.

10. One at a reunion : ALUM.

11. Totalitarian : DESPOTIC.

12. Objet d'__ : ART.

13. Happy Meal bonus : TOY.

21. Skeptic's comeback : SAYS WHO?

22. Migratory rodent : LEMMING.

26. Expunge from a manuscript : DELE.

27. USN rank : ENS.ign.

29. Terrified cry : EEK!!! A LEMMING!!!

30. Bridge framework : TRESTLE.

32. Phenomenon measured by the Fujita scale : TORNADO. Thursday level clue to ramp up an ordinary (and too commonplace this year) word.

34. Forwarder's abbr. : F.Y.IFor Your Information.

35. Atl. state : DEL.aware

36. Ajar, in poems : OPE.

38. Maximum degree : HILT.

39. Military storage facility : AMMO DUMP. Another tricky little entry, but "missile silo" wouldn't fit.

40. Juillet's season : ÉTÉ. French: July / summer. (Did anyone else read this clue as "Juliet"?)

41. Henpeck : NAG.

44. Erudite person : SAVANT. Nice chewy Thursday word. I count 3 so far.

46. Scold harshly : RAIL AT.

47. Ocean-warming phenomenon : EL NINO.

48. Find intolerable : DETEST.

51. Agenda fodder : ITEMS.

52. "Fanfare for the Common Man" composer Copland : AARON. Written in response to a request by conductor Goossens for songs to commemorate America's entry into WWII, it was meant as a stirring and patriotic piece. The conductor wanted him to title it "Fanfare for Soldiers," but Copland ended up choosing this title instead. Here, Copland conducts it himself (with an introduction by the late great Leonard Bernstein). 9:46

53. Exodus mount : SINAI.

56. Cookies n' Creme cookie maker : OREO.

57. Dryer detritus : LINT.

58. Zooey's "New Girl" role : JESS. The show hits the 18-49 demographic. Way below mine. Unless you are 18-49, give it 1/2 point for Thursday.

59. Youngster : LAD.

60. Sweet drink : ADE.

So, only 3 1/2 sticking points for me. How did you fare on this one?

Marti, out!