5 Questions: Alumni Edition

Undoubtedly one of the most popular features on the blog in 2013 was 5 Questions, our interview series featuring puzzle constructors, authors, filmmakers, game designers, puzzle enthusiasts, and creative people in general whose work and play relates to puzzles.

As 2013 was winding down, I reached out to our 5 Questions alumni to catch up and ask them what they’d been up to since appearing here last. (Or when I’m not pestering them for crossword construction advice or New Year’s Resolutions. *laughs*)

And so many of them were happy to share their latest projects with the PuzzleNation audience!

Author Robin Sloan’s marvelous novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is out in paperback, and the prequel story Ajax Penumbra 1969 is available as an eBook. I asked him about what he’s been doing, and his answer was brief and exciting:

Let’s see… I’m hard at work on a new novel!

That’s about it 😀

Can’t wait to see what he’s got in store for us next.

[Click here to check out Robin’s session of 5 Questions, as well as our book review of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore here.]

Great Urban Race Senior Manager Jordan Diehl was also happy to bring us up to speed on what the GUR crew has been up to:

We just finished a successful Championship event in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was our first time outside of the continental US, and the race was really well-received. Like in years past, a total of $10,000 was given out, but this year it was divided among the top 8 teams as opposed to years past where only first place received cash prizes.

The division of prizes will remain as we enter our 2014 season:
First place: $6,000
Second place: $2,000
Third place: $1,000
Fourth – Eighth place: $200 each

And speaking of, we are excited that our 2014 season is just around the corner!

We’ve consolidated our schedule for 2014; our first event is in late January and the last regular-schedule event of the season will be June 7. This leaves us room for another new Championship location in a potentially colder climate that we could not typically do in November/December (the usual dates of our Championship) as we are looking at an August/September Championship date.

Here at Great Urban Race, we’ve decided that 2014 is the “Year of You,” and we are focusing on listening to participant feedback more than ever. We put out a vote for Championship locations as well as several other campaigns like it through our social media pages.

[Be sure to check out the Great Urban Race website for more details, and click here to read Jordan’s session of 5 Questions.]

Kathy Matheson (a.k.a. puzzle blogger Crossword Kathy) had some interesting news to share, not only regarding her puzzle-constructing aspirations, but interacting with the PuzzleNation readership as well!

After the 5 Questions interview appeared, I was pleasantly surprised to get feedback from a couple of your readers! One is a fellow journalist here in Philly — I recognized his byline but have never met him, and didn’t know he was a puzzler, too. He told me about a local constructor he interviewed a few years ago, when she was 95! Now she’s about to turn 100, and he said she’s still making crosswords. Amazing. I hope to write a story about her myself, somehow tying it in to the just-passed centennial of the crossword.

The other person who contacted me is a constructor I admire who very kindly offered to help with my grid-building dreams. Part of me really wants to take him up on the offer, but part of me is very independent and wants to do it alone.

The truth is that I haven’t spent as much time constructing as I should, so perhaps I should do more of that before asking for help. I did send the L.A. Times one of my puzzles, which was rejected by a very nice note saying that “there’s some good work in your grid, but the theme puns are too stretchy” for their taste. Oh well.

[I have no doubt we’ll be seeing Kathy’s name in a puzzle byline in 2014. Click here to check out her session of 5 Questions!]

Puzzle poet Peter Valentine regularly posts his latest creations on Twitter and Tumblr — I’ve posted his poem “Birthday” for the 100th Anniversary of the crossword above — and has recently added another social media platform to his arsenal.

I’ve started an instagram feed, @peterboothby, which helps to reach many more folks and generate discussion.

[You can check out the full archive of his poems here, as well as his session of 5 Questions here.]

As you might’ve expected, constructor and puzzle historian David Steinberg has kept himself very busy between his own crossword construction and his work on the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, which recently passed the 14,000 puzzle mark!

On December 21, the crossword centennial, I gave a talk at the Palos Verdes Peninsula Center Library on crossword history, the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, and crossword editing, solving, and constructing. Also, I constructed a special centennial puzzle for the Focus page in The Orange County Register.

[Check out The Orange County Register, where David serves as crossword editor, as well as his session of 5 Questions here.]

Prolific constructor Robin Stears has been puzzling up a storm since last we spoke.

The dust has settled from the 100th anniversary celebrations, and of course, the other holidays took up some time, but I’m ready to get back to work. My daughter took pity on me and spent a day fixing my Tumblr blog so that it’s easier to find, sent out messages to all my Tumblr followers, and helped me set up a Tumblr-exclusive giveaway (to make up for my ineptitude). She even tweaked it for the holidays!

I’m starting off the year with a 21×21 StearsWords puzzle entitled “Things to Look Forward to in 2014.” There’s so much to look forward to, it needed a giant-size puzzle.

The Trivia Challenge puzzles seemed to be popular, so there will be more of those. I’ll continue to invite social media fans to send me their ideas and watch them come to life–a Reddit fan suggested “Doctor Who,” a Tumblr fan is responsible for the “Game of Thrones” puzzle, and a Facebook fan challenged me to do a “420” puzzle; clearly, I’m open to just about anything. (Someone asked me to do a cryptogram/crossword, where solvers have to decipher the clues, and then solve the puzzle. It sounds like a lot of work, but also a lot of fun; it also sounds perfect for a contest.)

Naturally, I’ll be keeping a close watch on what’s hot, just in case there’s another “Sharknado”-like event that begs to be immortalized in crossword. And solvers will still find the majority of my work in Penny/Dell puzzle books. They’ve been printing my puzzles for over twenty years, and I’m a huge fan of their puzzle books, as evidenced by the ginormous stack of Good Time Crosswords in my office.

[You can also join Team StearsWords by clicking here, and check out her session of 5 Questions here.]

As you might expect, David L. Hoyt has been busy. The most syndicated man in puzzles continues to produce his signature Jumble puzzles, but he also has a new puzzly product to share.

Just 2 Fun (pictured above) is David’s latest creation and his first app for younger players (ages 9 and up). The app is available for iPad, iPad mini, iPhone 4 and 5 and iPod touch devices. Just 2 Fun is a kids’ version of the enormously successful puzzle app Just 2 Words.

[You can explore all of David’s puzzly creations on his website, and check out his session of 5 Questions here.]

Even our latest interviewee, New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, had something to share with us in the few weeks since appearing on the PuzzleNation Blog.

You may recall him mentioning his favorite pastime:

At the moment I’m close to finishing a personal goal — to play table tennis every day this year. As I write this (on Dec. 17), I’ve played every single day since Jan. 1 — 351 days in all.

I’m happy to report that Will did in fact complete his 365 days of table tennis for 2013, even throwing a party to celebrate. (I suspect New Year’s Eve may have also contributed to the festivities.)

[Check out Will’s contributions to NPR’s Weekend Edition here, as well as his session of 5 Questions here. We hope to have more information on his new puzzle magazine Will Shortz’s WordPlay very soon.]

Thank you to all of our 5 Questions alums! They helped make 2013 a banner year for PuzzleNation Blog, and as we head into 2014 with new interviews to come, I promise to keep you posted on everything these brilliant puzzly folks are up to.

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can like us on Facebookfollow us on Twitter, cruise our boards on Pinterest, check out our Tumblr, download 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 Master Will Shortz

Welcome to another 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 overjoyed to have Will Shortz as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Without a doubt the most famous name in crosswords today, Will Shortz is the crossword editor for the New York Times, a position he’s held since 1993 (after putting in time with both GAMES Magazine and our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles). In his time as editor, he’s been credited with spearheading a sharp decrease in crosswordese in Times puzzles, as well as offering a greater level of visibility and acknowledgment for individual constructors.

He continues to serve as the amiable face of crosswords across all forms of media — on the radio with NPR, on television in The Simpsons and How I Met Your Mother, and in theaters with the documentary Wordplay. (He even provided the Riddler’s puzzle clues that so bamboozled the Dark Knight in the film Batman Forever.)

But solvers interested in puzzles beyond crosswords will also have a treat in store for them in 2014! The folks at Penny Press have teamed up with Will to create Will Shortz’s WordPlay, a magazine featuring crafty variety puzzles and crossword variants created by some of today’s top constructors.

Will 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 Will Shortz

1.) As the world’s first (and only) degree-holding enigmatologist, was becoming the editor of the New York Times crossword always a goal you had in mind, or did you foresee yourself doing something else with your singular degree?

Since childhood I’d always planned a career in puzzles, just not as crossword editor for The Times. In fact, I didn’t envision a career with crosswords at all. I imagined myself in an attic or a tiny house somewhere making novelty puzzles and sending them out for publication — probably living in poverty, but doing what I wanted. I fell into puzzle editing without a lot of planning.

But I do have a law degree from the University of Virginia (J.D., 1977), so if puzzles ever end up not working out for me, I always have that to fall back on!

2.) The hundredth anniversary of the crossword is fast approaching. Given your familiarity with puzzles both past and present, what does the hundredth anniversary mean to you? And where do you think puzzles will be a hundred years from now?

I’m not good at predicting the future. But I will say that crosswords are the best and most flexible form of puzzle ever devised, because they involve language (which we all use) and connect with virtually everything in life. They can be made easy or hard, small or large, tricky or straightforward, topical or of general interest. There’s a crossword for everyone and every mood.

Also, there’s something very appealing about filling empty squares. As humans, I think we like to fill empty spaces, and doing that in a crossword seems to satisfy some elemental human need. Even if print media die someday, I think crosswords will probably exist forever in one form or another.

[Here, Will and constructor Merl Reagle appear with the Simpsons in a
promotional pic for the episode “Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words.”]

3.) I could ask you how far in advance you choose puzzles for publication (considering the Times’ famous incremental rise in difficulty throughout the week), or inquire about your work as NPR’s resident puzzle master, but to be honest, I’m more curious about what you do when you’re NOT doing puzzles. What other activities or hobbies do you enjoy?

As friends know, I’m almost as fanatical about table tennis as I am about puzzles (emphasis on *almost*). I own my own club — the Westchester Table Tennis Center, just north of New York City. It’s one of the largest table tennis facilities in North America, and I believe it’s the nicest (which I say having played in almost 200 clubs in 43 states and two Canadian provinces).

At the moment I’m close to finishing a personal goal — to play table tennis every day this year. As I write this (on Dec. 17), I’ve played every single day since Jan. 1 — 351 days in all. And I’m filming myself every day as proof. At the end of the year, if I succeed, some friends of mine in Hollywood have promised to edit a 3- or 4-minute video of me playing every day, which I’ll throw up on YouTube.

My ultimate goal is to become national table tennis champion for my age.

4.) What’s next for Will Shortz?

No plans for anything else. I love what I’m doing. I’ve been the crossword editor of The Times now for 20 years, overseer of the U.S. team for the World Puzzle Championship for 22 years, puzzlemaster for NPR’s “Weekend Edition” for almost 27 years, director of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament for 36 years, and program director for the annual convention of the National Puzzlers’ League for 38 years. That’s plenty to keep me occupied.

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

I have two goals in life: One, to make the world a little better for being here. And Two, to enjoy myself. I think that’s a good philosophy for anyone.

Many thanks to Will for his time. You can follow him on Twitter (@Will_Shortz) and listen to his NPR appearances on Weekend Edition here! And keep your eyes peeled for the first issue of Will Shortz’s WordPlay, which will be hitting newsstands in February!

Oh, and I suppose you could always check out the New York Times Crossword, if you’re so inclined. =)

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can like us on Facebookfollow us on Twitter, cruise our boards on Pinterest, check out our Tumblr, download 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!