5 Questions with Crossword Constructor Joanne Sullivan

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And I’m excited to welcome Joanne Sullivan as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

[Joanne stands beside fellow constructor Tracy Bennett at this year’s Indie 500 tournament.]

Joanne is a terrific constructor whose puzzles have appeared in The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and numerous other outlets. One of her puzzles is now featured on The New York Times‘ Wordplay Blog as one of their 11 Remarkable Crosswords for New Solvers (each hand-picked by Will Shortz). Her puzzle with Erik Agard at the 2016 Indie 500 Crossword Tournament, “Do I Hear a Waltz?”, was one of my favorite crosswords last year.

She often spends her time teaching crossword classes, spreading not only the love of crossword construction and wordplay to others, but hard-won knowledge and experience from a fun and innovative constructor.

Joanne was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions for Joanne Sullivan

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

I’ve enjoyed a variety of puzzles and games ever since I can remember, but I had avoided crossword puzzles for decades. When I was a young adult, I would occasionally take a stab at The Sunday New York Times crossword and would manage to get only a couple of answers after reading every single clue. I was amazed that my father could routinely complete the whole puzzle. I didn’t aspire to match his achievement because I thought that crosswords were filled with useless, arcane information.

When I subscribed to GAMES Magazine, I solved all the puzzles in it except for the crosswords because I had the mistaken assumption that all crosswords were dry and boring. I now realize that I missed out on a lot of fun. The high-quality crosswords in GAMES were part of the new wave of puzzles that were filled with current references and lively phrases.

Many years later an office mate encouraged a group of our fellow coworkers to solve The New York Times crossword together each weekday. I never really enjoyed the computer programming work that I was supposed to be focusing on so I welcomed the diversion. I immediately was surprised at how clever and entertaining the crosswords were.

Like the character in Green Eggs and Ham, I learned that I actually liked the nourishment that I had assumed would be distasteful. In the beginning, my coworkers would pass around the newspaper, and we’d each fill in an answer or two until we managed to complete the whole puzzle. We relied heavily on Google by the time we got to Friday. Solving late week puzzles without help seemed like an impossible dream, but before long that dream became a reality.

[One of Joanne’s New York Times-published puzzles. This one makes excellent use of the black squares by incorporating some of them into the themed entries.
Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

2. What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle?

I personally love puzzles with inventive, tricky themes and clues. Crosswords have been around for a long time so it’s hard to come up with a new theme or a tricky clue that misdirects the solver in a different way. Even new themes and clues tend to be variations on something that has been done before so I appreciate crosswords that are truly original.

What do you most enjoy — or most commonly avoid — when constructing your own?

Here are crossword constructing tasks in descending order of my preference:

  • Coming up with a theme and finding answers that fit it.
  • Writing clues / Arranging the black and white squares in the grid. (Two very different tasks that I find equally enjoyable.)
  • Filling the grid with non-theme answers.
  • Adding new words to my database of potential crossword answers and rating those words in order of desirability.

Maintaining a good database of potential crossword answers can greatly facilitate crossword construction, but I find database maintenance time-consuming and dreary so I avoid it. I try to rationalize my negligence by telling myself that it’s impossible to add words and assign values to them that will be valid for all audiences.

For example, the word UGLY would be a perfectly fine answer in any mainstream newspaper, but I would try to avoid including it in a personalized puzzle that I was making as a birthday gift because I wouldn’t want the recipient to interpret it as an insult. But deep down I know that my rationalization isn’t valid, and I’m just too lazy to properly maintain my database.

What do you think is the most common pitfall of constructors just starting out?

I think some new constructors might settle for mediocrity instead of pushing themselves to achieve more. I’ve heard that some constructors are afraid to arrange the black and white squares in a grid from scratch. They’ll only use sample grids that they copy from a crossword database. It might take a lot of trial and error, but you’ll probably come up with a better grid if you try to arrange the squares in a way that best suits your theme answers instead of grabbing a prefab grid. I’ll often experiment with dozens of different grid designs before choosing one that fits my theme answers best.

Constructors might also be satisfied with so-so fill (which are the non-theme answers) or clues. I can understand the urge to leave well enough alone, especially when submitting puzzles on spec. It can be really frustrating to spend a lot of time coming up with stellar fill and clues only to be told that your puzzle was dead on arrival because the editor didn’t like the theme. Instead of compromising their standards, constructors might try to seek out the few editors who are willing to preapprove themes. Or they may emulate the many excellent indie constructors who publish their puzzles on their own websites.

[A puzzle, mid-construction. Images courtesy of Crossdown.]

3. Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others?

It’s hard to pick favorites because I’ve solved so many great puzzles and clues over the years so I’ll be self-centered and mention three of my own puzzles.

My Tuesday, February 23, 2010 New York Times crossword will always be close to my heart because it was my first published puzzle. Will Shortz picked it as one of the “11 Remarkable Crosswords for New Solvers,” but novices shouldn’t feel bad if they find it difficult. Most solvers found it harder than an average Tuesday puzzle.

Another special crossword is “Contents Redacted,” which The Chronicle of Higher Education published on October 16, 2015. I’m very grateful to Brad Wilber and Frank Longo for polishing it and working hard to present it in a way that stayed true to my vision. I also appreciate pannonica whose review on the Crossword Fiend blog was clearer and more insightful than any description that I could have written.

(Speaking of blogs, kudos to PuzzleNation Blog, CrosswordFiend, and similar blogs for helping us appreciate puzzles! Thanks for helping us understand the strengths and weaknesses of puzzles you review, explaining tricky themes and clues, and keeping us informed of news such as puzzle tournaments.)

One of my most satisfying experiences was co-writing “Do I Hear a Waltz?” with Erik Agard for the 2016 Indie 500 Crossword Tournament. Working with Erik was a joy. He’s brilliant and extremely kind. You should interview him next!

One great thing about making a puzzle for a tournament was having the flexibility to make an odd-sized grid that best suited our theme. I find that tournament puzzles are often very creative, perhaps because the constructors don’t have the same editorial and size constraints that they do at most other venues. Some of my favorite puzzles came from The Indie 500 and Lollapuzzoola crossword tournaments.

As a solver, my favorite clues are the ones that make me think, “What on earth can this mean?” One recent clue that gave me that reaction came from Brendan Emmett Quigley’s 9/20/17 AV Club crossword (which is titled “The Lay of the Land”). At first, I couldn’t make sense of the clue [Like slightly firm elbows, e.g.] When I read it, I thought, “What the heck is a slightly firm elbow? … Hmm … AKIMBO doesn’t fit … Hmm …” Eventually I achieved a great aha moment — AL DENTE!

I also love clues that put a fresh spin on old crosswordese or teach me interesting pieces of trivia. I find that The Chronicle of Higher Education and Peter Gordon’s Fireball Crosswords are particularly strong in that regard.

[Joanne poses with members of a crossword seminar,
showing off prizes from our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles.]

4. What’s next for Joanne Sullivan?

I’m currently focusing on giving crossword puzzle seminars. For years I had mistakenly assumed that crosswords were boring and impossible to solve. Now I enjoy showing skeptics how fun crosswords can be and giving people tips that help them improve their solving skills. I love hearing from novices who tell me that I inspired them to start solving crosswords and veteran solvers who say that my tips helped them tackle more difficult puzzles.

I recently taught my first children’s classes and was blown away by the kids’ intelligence and enthusiasm. I’m so glad those children caught the puzzle bug early and didn’t waste decades avoiding crosswords as I did.

5. If you could give the readers, writers, aspiring constructors, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

Read Patrick Berry’s PDF publication Crossword Constructor’s Handbook. The former print version of that book (Crossword Puzzle Challenges for Dummies) taught me more about constructing crosswords than any other source.

Cruciverbalists might find the information about crossword construction interesting even if they don’t aspire to create puzzles themselves. The book includes 70 crosswords by Patrick Berry (who many crossword aficionados consider the preeminent crossword constructor) so it’s worth the $10 for the puzzles alone.


A huge thank you to Joanne for her time. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for her puzzles and her crossword seminars!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

The Indie 500 Crossword Tournament returns soon!

Last year, a new crossword tournament joined the ranks of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and Lollapuzzoola, immediately carving out its own niche in the puzzle world. The Indie 500 offered top-notch puzzles and a pie-fueled solving experience both live in Washington, D.C., and for solvers at home.

And it’s back! The second edition of The Indie 500 is happening on Saturday, June 4, and this year, it’s all decked out in a prom motif.

I reached out to the team behind last year’s event, and constructor/director Andy Kravis was happy to answer my questions and offer some insight into this year’s event.

Andy has been published in the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Los Angeles Times, and other venues, and he was excited to discuss this year’s tournament with the PuzzleNation audience.

1.) I’m very glad to see The Indie 500 returning for a second year. What did you learn from the inaugural event, and what are you hoping to change/improve?

We’re glad to be back! Here’s a list of things we learned from the inaugural Indie 500:

How to run a crossword tournament.

None of us had ever done anything like this before, so every step was brand new to us. We all went into it knowing that building our own crossword tournament from the ground up was going to be a lot of work, but I don’t think any of us fully appreciated how much work it would be until we were already neck-deep in it. We started planning about a year in advance, and one thing I learned is that it takes almost exactly a year to plan a successful Indie 500, even with a team of five directors and a ton of wonderful volunteer test-solvers and staffers.

As for the tournament itself, a lot of our more ambitious ideas — writing a meta suite to raise funds for the tournament, using a new scoring system, having a contest to find a tourney puzzle by a new constructor — worked out really well, so we brought them back this year. We got some great feedback from attendees about which puzzles they enjoyed most, which parts of the program worked well, and so on, all of which we incorporated into our planning for this year. On the whole, the tournament will look a lot like last year’s: five preliminary puzzles of varying difficulty, plus a finals puzzle for the top three scorers in both divisions.

I would say the most visible change we’re making is getting lots of new faces involved. After last year’s event, Evan Birnholz was hired as the Washington Post‘s new crossword constructor (whoo!), and Neville Fogarty entered the last year of his Ph.D program, so they both had to step away from their directorial duties. We were thrilled to bring on Angela Olson Halsted, who’s been a terrific addition to our team, and we’ve also gotten to work with a lot of really talented constructors this year as well.

We’re always open to ideas of how to improve the tournament experience, so feel free to e-mail us at xwordtournament@gmail.com if you have suggestions.

[Andy, alongside Sara Nies, solves at the 2015 Lollapuzzoola event.]

2.) Last year’s theme was racing, and this year’s theme is prom. What about prom appealed to the team more than other possibilities?

We knew almost immediately after wrapping last year’s tournament that we wanted this year’s Indie 500 to be prom themed. The biggest upside, and the main reason we chose it as our theme, is that we really wanted to see what we could do when working with other new constructors in teams. By bringing on prom dates, we now have the opportunity to showcase not just the work of our contest winner but also of the additional constructors we’ve invited. Some of our constructing teams bring very different voices to the constructing process, and it’s been really cool to see how those styles have meshed. And of course you don’t have to take a date to prom — you can go solo, or you can go with a group — and we’ve also kept that in mind while planning the tournament.

We also love the aesthetics of prom. As we tossed around ideas for this year’s tournament, we kept returning to the similarities between a disco ball and a crossword grid, and Raina Zheng did an awesome job designing this year’s logo with that idea in mind. It was easy for us to see the aesthetics of crosswords in disco balls, tuxedos, limousines, and dance floors, and it’s also fun for us to think of ways to inject some of the colorful elements of prom back into a crossword tournament.

Plus, our tradition of playing entrance music for our finalists makes possibly more sense with a prom theme than it did with a racing theme.

In a broad metaphorical sense, I think prom is more in line with what we’re about than racing anyway. Racing seems like a natural fit for a crossword tournament — it’s an individual pursuit that’s about speed (plus the checkered flag and the Indy/Indie pun were too good to resist). But I think what’s great about crossword tournaments is that crossword people have an excuse to get together and have fun and celebrate.

[Possible crossword prom looks?]

3.) One of my favorite aspects of The Indie 500 is that you hold a contest for constructors to join the team and contribute a puzzle to the tournament. Last year’s winner was Finn Vigeland, and this year’s winner is puzzle newcomer Sam Trabucco. What sort of response did you get when you announced this year’s contest, and what made Sam stand out?

Those of you who solved last year’s puzzles know just how lucky we were to get Finn’s submission. We got a lot of excellent puzzles that year, quite a few of which we’ve since been pleased to see published in venues like AV Club and Fireball Crosswords.

We chose Finn’s puzzle because it had a unique combination of clean and lively fill, clues with a clear voice, and a tricky theme that had the potential to incorporate a unique visual element (namely, the candy bars that ended up going in the grid). The version of the puzzle that ran during the tournament ended up being one of my favorite puzzles that year.

[One of the candy bars from Finn Vigeland’s Indie 500 puzzle.]

We didn’t get quite as many submissions this year, and yet picking a winner was just as tough. After narrowing the group of submissions to four or five entries that stood out to us as the best of the bunch, we debated for a long time before picking the puzzle that turned out to be Sam’s. Without giving too much away, what we liked about Sam’s submission was that the theme was something we hadn’t seen before, and the fill was really fresh and showed a point of view.

One thing I want to mention is that after we unblinded the submissions, we were really disappointed not to have received more entries from women and people of color. We’ve already started talking about what we can do to encourage more submissions from that pool of talent next year. This is a top priority for us in running the best indie crossword tournament we can.

4.) Finally, and most importantly, will there still be pie?

Yes, there will be pie. In fact, we’re considering a Pie-Only division in 2017.

Thanks to Andy for taking the time out to answer my questions! You can check out the full details on The Indie 500 by clicking here!

(I’m already signed up to solve from home, and I can’t wait to see this year’s puzzles.)


Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!