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!) Today I’m excited to introduce our latest interviewee, Christina Iverson!
Christina is a crossword constructor and the assistant editor for the LA Times Crossword. When she’s not working on puzzles, she can often be found reading, knitting, biking or hiking. She lives with her husband and two young children in Ames, IA. Find Christina on Twitter at @xtinaiverson.
1. How did you get started with puzzles?
I’m a first generation crossword solver. I grew up with a love of words, books, games, and puzzles, but no one in my family solved crosswords. In my mind, crosswords were just about trivia, and using big words that no one really uses in real life. Not true!
I realized that in 2018 when my son was a baby. My husband and I were trying to get him to fall asleep in his own bed at night before we went to bed (!). He’d usually last about 10 minutes before waking up again, crying.
One night while our TV show was paused, I came back from our son’s room to find my husband working on a crossword puzzle. We realized that crosswords were more easily interrupted than TV shows, and started solving them pretty regularly together. I was really terrible at them at first, so I started solving puzzles by myself to get extra practice; it’s not as fun to solve puzzles with someone who knows the answer before you even understand what the clue is getting at.
It wasn’t very long before I started trying to construct my own puzzles. I’ve always been interested in creating puzzles and games; I invented my first board game when I was probably 5 or 6, made treasure hunts for my brother in grade school, and designed logic puzzles for my geometry teacher in high school. So it didn’t seem like much of a stretch to go from solving to constructing.
The first puzzle I made was a puzzle for my husband, about our cat, George Melvin. I constructed on my own for a couple of months before I reached out to some mentors in the crossword community. Jeff Chen, Amanda Chung, and Ross Trudeau all gave me invaluable assistance at the beginning of my journey, and I don’t think I would have gotten published without their help.
2. What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle? What do you most enjoy—or most commonly avoid—when constructing your own? What do you think is the most common pitfall of constructors just starting out?
I think a great puzzle is one that brings a smile to your face. For me, it’s mostly about having fun theme entries and a good “aha” moment, and also keeping the grid clean and free from yucky crossword glue.
I think the most common pitfall of new constructors is that they can be so enthusiastic that they move on to the next constructing stage too quickly. They often underestimate the importance of the theme entries, and move on to making a grid before having a solid theme set. The theme makes or breaks the puzzle, so if the theme isn’t well-conceived and well-executed, it doesn’t matter how great the rest of the puzzle is. They also often move on to writing clues before ironing out issues in a grid. I think many new constructors remember too vividly the times that they have run into words they didn’t know in a puzzle, and can have the attitude that all crosswords are full of obscure words and lots of abbreviations. (I definitely had this misconception when I first started out!)
3. Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others?
My favorite puzzles to solve and construct are Sunday grids, and I especially like ones with wacky theme entries. I always try to make the theme entries as silly and fun as possible. One of my favorite puzzles I’ve made was in The New York Times with my frequent collaborator Katie Hale, and had R sounds switched for Ws. For example, “Cause for celebration at a pachyderm sanctuary?” led to AN ELEPHANT IN THE WOMB.
And one of my favorite clues that always stands out for me was in a themeless puzzle by Matthew Stock—“Ground shaking stuff?” was the clue for PEPPER. So clever!
4. How did you end up as Patti Varol’s assistant editor for The LA Times? And what’s next for Christina Iverson?
I have been submitting puzzles to the Crosswords Club and Daily POP for a while, so Patti was familiar with me and my work. In February, I had made a puzzle for the Boswords Winter Wondersolve, an online crossword competition. The constructors were all interviewed over Zoom, and Patti was watching. I mentioned in the interview that I’d love to be doing crossword things full time some day. About two minutes later, I had an email in my inbox from her about a potential job opportunity. Rich Norris was retiring in March, and she was looking for an assistant once she took over as editor for The LA Times. I enthusiastically said yes, and I’m so glad I did! I think we work together well and make a great team.
I really like what I’m doing right now, and don’t see any big changes coming up on the horizon. I do hope that I’ll have more time for constructing once my son starts school in the fall, as right now I’m mostly just constructing on the weekend, and doing LA Times work during the week.
5. If you could give the readers, writers, aspiring constructors, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?
You do you, and don’t let other people dictate what the right way is to solve puzzles. Puzzles are all about challenging yourself in a fun way. If it’s more pleasant for you to solve with a thesaurus and Wikipedia, then do that. If you enjoy speed solving, have fun that way.
And for new solvers and new constructors both, remember that no one is amazing the first time they do something, and that it takes time and practice, but you can have fun the whole time.
Christina’s work can often be found in the Daily POP Crosswords app! Download now and keep an eye out for her name, and enjoy our other contributors’ puzzles while you’re there. You can find delightful deals on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search!
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