5 Questions with Crossword Pro Kathy Matheson

Welcome to the seventh edition of PuzzleNation Blog’s interview feature, 5 Questions!

We’re reaching out to puzzle constructors, video game writers and designers, writers, filmmakers, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life, talking to people who make puzzles and people who enjoy them in the hopes of exploring the puzzle community as a whole.

And I’m excited to have Kathy Matheson as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Better known as Crossword Kathy to puzzle fans, Kathy is an expert puzzle solver whose writeups on each New York Times Crossword are not only an invaluable resource for new puzzlers, but thoroughly entertaining as well. She’s also the editor of the marvelously puzzle-centric Crossword Kathy Daily, where you can find all kinds of puzzle news.

Kathy 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 Kathy Matheson

1.) How did you get started with puzzles?

The short answer is that I’ve been solving crossword puzzles since junior high, when a friend intent on winning the school’s magazine drive gave me a subscription to Games Magazine as a birthday present. (The editor of Games back then? Will Shortz.)

But I should add that I come from a family of puzzlers. My mom and stepdad solve every puzzle the L.A. Times has to offer on any given day – crosswords, cryptograms, Jumbles, sudokus. When I was a kid, my grandpa would write me letters and include some scrambled words at the bottom; I would figure them out and send him back a few as well. And my dad and I would try to solve a daily newspaper crossword together on our weekly trips to a local coffee shop.

One distinct memory from those days: I filled in the word DIRT as the answer for “Seed covering,” only to have my dad gently correct it to ARIL, which he said was a pretty standard entry for that clue. I was baffled. Who on earth would know the word ARIL? So as an adult, when I heard Will Shortz was trying to take the crosswordese out of crosswords, I knew exactly what that meant. And I thought it was great.

2.) Your analyses of each Times crossword are not only thoughtful and accessible, they’re also very funny at times. Is there a balance you try to strike with each puzzle’s breakdown?

I’m so flattered that you think my posts are funny! I’m not a comedian by any stretch, but I hope my blog is lively and entertaining. I guess it’s just not that much fun to publish only a list of answers or a finished grid. Also, I think solvers are more likely to appreciate the craft of crossword construction if you can help them understand a challenging theme, or commiserate with them over an esoteric answer.

Puzzlers, by their nature, like to learn new things, so I try to add interesting links to current events. And frequent readers know I always look for a way to give a shout-out to my adopted hometown of Philly, one of the most underrated cities in the world. Sure, we have our problems -– including a terrible baseball and football team right now -– but it is a tremendously vibrant, beautiful and historic place.

3.) We’re closing in on the one-hundredth anniversary of the crossword. What, in your estimation, gives crosswords such long-lasting appeal? Do you think the crossword’s bicentennial will garner equal interest?

I think crosswords are still around because they’ve evolved. If they were still constructed the way they were back then, I’m not sure how many people would be interested. Themes, rebuses, clever wordplay and complex puzzles-within-puzzles (like the recent grid in Braille!) are what keep me coming back. I certainly hope crosswords will still be around in another hundred years. People still play cards, and those have been around for centuries, right?

4.) What’s next for Kathy Matheson (and Crossword Kathy)?

Well, I’ve been trying my hand at constructing. So far, my aspirations for a NYT crossword byline have been crushed by the very exacting standards of Will Shortz -– though he was extremely nice in his rejections. One puzzle didn’t meet the technical parameters (the word count was too high), and the other had a theme too similar to one that he ran a few years ago. So… I will soldier on. I have a couple of half-finished grids that I just can’t seem to make work. Turns out it takes a lot longer to build a crossword than it does to solve it. Who knew?

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

Keep solving! Just because one puzzle was frustrating doesn’t mean the next one will be. You never know when the subject might involve your area of expertise. Eventually, things will click. Here’s a confession: I still struggle mightily with British (cryptic) crosswords. But I’m able to solve a lot more clues today than I did a couple of years ago.

Many thanks to Kathy Matheson for her time. Check out her marvelous writeups of NYT crosswords on her website, as well as the latest issue of The Crossword Kathy Daily. I can’t wait to see what puzzly goodness she cooks up for us next.

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, check out our Classic Word Search iBook (recently featured by Apple in the Made for iBooks category!), play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!

5 Questions with Puzzle Constructor Robin Stears

Welcome to the fourth edition of PuzzleNation Blog’s newest feature, 5 Questions!

We’re reaching out to puzzle constructors, video game writers and designers, writers, filmmakers, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life, talking to people who make puzzles and people who enjoy them in the hopes of exploring the puzzle community as a whole.

And I’m excited to have Robin Stears as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Robin is a puzzle constructor whose crosswords appear not only on her StearsWords site, but have also appeared in Penny Press/Dell and Kappa titles as well as the Los Angeles Times. Her puzzles are clever and topical, often striving to add new entries and wrinkles to the field of crossword construction and cluing.

Robin 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 Robin Stears

1.) How did you get started with puzzles?

Crossword puzzles and word games have always appealed to me, and after my first daughter was born, I was looking for a way to work at home. My mom suggested the idea of constructing crossword puzzles, since I’d been killing time solving them while I was wondering what to do. Armed with a stack of dictionaries, graph paper, and pencils, I created a puzzle, and typed it on my mom’s typewriter, and colored in the black squares with a marker. I sent my first puzzle to Janis Weiner at Kappa, who promptly sent it back with a bunch of notes. I’m very grateful to her for taking the time to explain what I did wrong. It’s because of her I decided to try again. She rejected most of my puzzles at first, but she always explained why. I consider her my mentor, but she probably doesn’t know that.

2.) You recently constructed a puzzle utilizing that most infamous of cinematic weather phenomena, the sharknado. You have a knack for releasing topical puzzles steeped in pop culture. Is this more a case of keeping your puzzles fresh (since so many crosswords slip into archaic terms and dated references), or of you constructing the kinds of puzzles you’d enjoy solving?

It’s a little bit of both. I think language is fluid and crossword puzzles should reflect that. For example, the word “inception” wasn’t quite as popular in everyday conversation prior to the 2010 movie release as it is today. I don’t know about other constructors, but I find it very satisfying to be the first to use a new word in a crossword puzzle; I suspect they do, too, as evidenced by the number of times ZZZQUIL was used in puzzles when that product was introduced.

The fandom crossword puzzles were born from a comment I saw on Tumblr; someone complained that there weren’t any fandom puzzles. It occurred to me that the only specialty puzzle — where all the clues refer to a single theme — was the Bible puzzle, probably because there are nearly 600,000 words in it. There are about the same number of words in the Lord of the Rings books, though.

Nearly every fandom has a wiki, and a plethora of trivia websites, and by exploring them — along with the Internet Movie Database, Wikipedia, Reddit, and other sources, I was able to create several puzzles specifically for certain fandoms, including both Star Wars and Star Trek, “Adventure Time,” and “Doctor Who.” There is so much information online, that I was actually able to create the “Doctor Who” puzzle without having seen a single episode! My younger daughter’s a big fan, though; she inspired the “Adventure Time” one, too. They also allow me to pay homage to the things I love, like Stephen Colbert, Syfy movies, Donkey Kong, and the US Postal Service.

Every constructor’s style is a little different, and like most solvers, I have my favorites — Liz Gorski, Tyler Hinman, Brendan Emmett Quigley, Merl Reagle, Matt Gaffney, Trip Payne, and of course, Patrick Blindauer, whose dollar bill crossword puzzle is my personal all-time favorite. We all put our personal stamp on the puzzles we create. But, the modern crossword puzzle is about to turn one hundred years old, and if they’re going to remain relevant in the modern world, they have to change and adapt to suit younger solvers. That means constructors need to use the Urban Dictionary as well as Webster’s.

3.) You’re also a published author with several titles to your credit. How does the creative process for writing a book compare to that of creating a crossword?

Writing fiction and writing crossword clues are completely different processes. A novel is a long, leisurely cross-country trip, while a crossword clue is a quick peek around the corner. It took me about a year to write each book, after researching it for months, and another six months of editing. Crossword puzzles may take anywhere from an hour to a day to complete, depending on the size and the theme entries. In the past few years, partly for the instant gratification, partly because it’s more lucrative, and partly because it’s more fun, I’ve concentrated more on crossword puzzles, although I do have another novel I intend to finish.

4.) What’s next for Robin Stears?

Well, there’s that novel… eventually. In the meantime, I’d like to attend more puzzle events, like Lollapuzzoola and the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Last year, I volunteered at my local tournament, and it was fun meeting the participants and discussing the puzzles they’d solved — there’s no substitute for immediate feedback. Solving crosswords is very different from constructing them. I have a database at my disposal, and I have great respect for solvers who have to remember all those clues! I’d like to meet the constructors I admire to exchange ideas and hear their stories, and Amy Reynaldo and Kathy Matheson (Crossword Kathy), whose blogs are so informative and whose ideas and opinions I respect — it’s because of Amy’s “Diary of a Crossword Fiend” blog that I removed certain words from my database, like APER. I’d love to finally meet the people behind PuzzleNation, Cruciverb, Sporcle, and Quinapalus, and all the other puzzle-related sites. Constructing crosswords is a lonely business — I need to get out more.

The fandom trivia puzzles are a challenge, so you’ll probably see more of those. Fans of “Breaking Bad” will see a special puzzle at the end of September for the final episode, and baseball trivia fans can expect their puzzle in October, during the World Series. For Halloween, I’m planning a horror movie puzzle, and of course, I’ll do something for the 100th anniversary of crosswords in December — I’m open to ideas for that one.

Ben Tausig recently pointed out in an article in “The Hairpin” that there seem to be fewer women constructors, and I’d love to help remedy that. When I first started, twenty-odd years ago, constructing a crossword puzzle was difficult and time-consuming — these days, most constructors use software with a built-in database of words and clues. My personal choice is Crossword Compiler. I think anyone with a basic knowledge of the rules and a bit of computer savvy could create and publish a crossword puzzle. I believe there’s plenty of room in the crossword puzzle world for new constructors with new ideas. Technology and the opportunities for puzzle creators and solvers to interact with one another will change the ways crosswords are created. I had a lot of help in the beginning, and I hope to pay it forward to the next generation of crossword constructors.

[[Glenn’s sidenote: Robin also had a lot of interesting points regarding the move toward digital puzzle distribution, and I think that topic deserves a post of its own. Keep your eyes peeled for that post (and her thoughtful comments) in the near future!]]

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

When I construct a crossword puzzle, I always have the fans in mind. I want to create a solving experience that’s fun and enjoyable for them. The entire time I was constructing a special “420” puzzle, which, to my knowledge, had never been done before, I was imagining how surprised and delighted some puzzle solvers would be that week. And like the Super Bowl puzzle and the Harry Potter puzzle, I knew that not everybody would appreciate it, but the ones who did would appreciate it all the more because I constructed it especially for them.

When I construct puzzles for Penny Press/Dell, I also have a certain fan in mind — someone who enjoys an easier solve, with a little less pop culture and a little more word play. No matter which publisher I’m targeting, I’m always thinking about the puzzle solvers and what they might enjoy. Frequently, I construct customized crossword puzzles as gifts; they’re always a big hit because they’re personal.

So, my advice is this: Tell me what you want! Send me an email, tweet me, write on my Facebook or Google+, hit me up on Blogger or Tumblr — StearsWords is not hard to find. I maintain a variety of social media because I want puzzle fans of all kinds to interact with me. Much of my day is spent scanning social sites like Twitter, Pinterest, and Reddit and reading puzzle blogs, trying to find out what kinds of topics might interest puzzle solvers. Anyone can send me an idea for a puzzle, and if I like it, I’ll do my best to make it happen. I’d rather give puzzle fans what they really want than give them what I want them to have and hope they like it.

Many thanks to Robin Stears for her time. Check out her StearsWords puzzles on her website, and follow her on Twitter (https://twitter.com/RobinStears)! I can’t wait to see what puzzly goodness she cooks up for us next.

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! Don’t forget about our PuzzleNation Community Contest, running all this week! You can like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, check out our Classic Word Search iBook (three volumes to choose from!), play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!