Welcome to the first Devil Cross Fireside Chat with a fellow Puzzle Person. My guest today is Peter Broda, an irreverent crossword constructor from Regina, Saskatchewan. His site The Cross Nerd was one of my original inspirations to start publishing my own puzzles independently, and since he’s been a practitioner of vowelless crosswords, I figured he’d make an excellent choice for an interview on the heels of my very first vowelless puzzle. If you’ve ever solved one of his themeless or his vowelless grids, you’ll know they’ve got a certain edge to them. Actually, “edge” doesn’t really do them justice — it’s more of a fury. He jams so many fun and offbeat and why-didn’t-I-think-of-that phrases into his puzzles that they leave you saying “Wow.”
Peter’s also one of my four co-founding colleagues of the Indie 500 Crossword Puzzle Tournament. We’re currently solving submissions for our tourney’s sixth constructor contest, and while we can’t share too much about that right now, we’re definitely excited to see and evaluate fresh new puzzle-building talent, and we hope to pick a winner as soon as we can. Both Peter and I were on the other side of that equation just two-and-a-half years ago when we each submitted a puzzle to Ben Tausig’s Twenty Under Thirty series, and those puzzles ended up being among our first major crossword publications.
In this interview, Peter and I talked about a lot of stuff: creating puzzles (and vowelless ones in particular), the indie puzzle scene, his hobbies, music, and perhaps most intriguing for puzzle lovers, the impending termination of a popular weekly crossword. Read on for more info about that.
(Update 1/22/15 @ 5:05 pm ET: Andrew Ries suggested to me that these interviews need to be called Fireside Chats. Thus I have decreed it. Golf clap to Andrew for coming up with that.)
EVAN: So! You’re Peter. Hi. Tell us a little about yourself. What you do, where you do it, what your favorite movie/album/trashy reality TV show is, etc.
PETER: Professionally, I do online application support and some web development and a bit of everything else for the Saskatchewan Ministry of Education.
I don’t have a favourite album of all time, but there are definitely selections that have been my favourite for a period of time. The Dave Weckl Band’s live album (love me some Tom Kennedy bass), Mahler’s 5th Symphony, “From Mars to Sirius” by Gojira, MF DOOM’s “Mm.. Food” album, and Frank Zappa’s “London Symphony Orchestra” recordings come to mind as music I’ve cherished for a long time and listened to obsessively when I first discovered it. I generally don’t watch movies more than once, but the last couple movies that I saw and really enjoyed are “Gravity” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” And my guilty reality TV pleasure is “Project Runway.”
EVAN: How did you get into this whole puzzle-building hobby?
PETER: Like everyone else that got into it post-2006, I watched “Wordplay,” realized that there’s a community of weird and wonderful people that make puzzles, made a bunch of sophomoric (well, even that’s being generous) attempts, gave up x times, came back to it x+1 times, eventually made something people enjoyed, tried to do it again.
EVAN: You’ve got your own free crossword website, The Cross Nerd, but you’ve had to take it off the weekly schedule for now. It’s hard work to keep that kind of site up, and sometimes the rest of life gets in the way. But do you have any plans to resume regular or semi-regular operations there in the short- or long-term?
PETER: Not really. For one thing, I’m a bit of a serial hobbyist, and when I discover something new and challenging I’ll get super excited and work at it as much as I can for maybe a year or two but then I’ll discover something else new and excited and I’ll put the old hobby on the back burner. When I started playing bass, I probably practiced upwards of 25 hours a week, and at one time I played in seven different bands; now I hardly ever pick it up except for the odd gig every few weeks or a month, and I only play with one group. Similarly, I used to love spending every free minute thinking about and working on and solving and archiving puzzles, so keeping up with a weekly schedule wasn’t a big deal. These days I not only have fewer free minutes, but also I’m on to other hobbies. I’ve gotten into speed-running classic platformer video games (I like to get in an hour or so of Super Metroid practice every few days, and I’m going to start grinding Donkey Kong Country 2 and Yoshi’s Island), playing NES Tetris (I’m among the top 40 highest scorers in the world), and putting together a pub trivia night at a local bar. I still love constructing and I try to always have a puzzle or two in the works, but I just don’t set aside that much time for it anymore and I’m happier that way.
Also, though, it just seemed less and less important to me to churn out a weekly puzzle just because; I found I would rather just let the ideas and inspiration and motivation come when they come and only construct and post things that really demanded to be constructed and posted. When I started the blog in 2011, I was just cutting my teeth (I think the first blog puzzle was my first puzzle to ever see the light of day) and I mostly kept up the schedule to motivate myself to keep working at it. Once I started to get a bit of attention and started creating stuff that people seemed to enjoy, I felt more pressure to only publish really top quality stuff, rather than just whatever I happened to be able to come up with that particular week. Props to you and anyone that can maintain a regular schedule and keep the work so uniformly stellar; it’s just not for me anymore though.
EVAN: I’ve found that that pressure is both one of the scariest and most exciting things about operating a blog like this, especially now that I’m moving towards posting puzzles more often than I used to. The response to Devil Cross has been positive thus far, but I never know if one of my themes will totally fall flat, or if I’ll fail to come up with a clever enough theme in time. That’s part of the reason why I go to the themeless well as often as I do. Those may be tough to fill cleanly, but I think the game is just easier — pack as many great entries into the grid as you can. Themed puzzles, on the other hand, feel a lot more constricting. You need your theme answers to “work” and be clever, funny, and original enough to deliver that a-ha moment to solvers, and that’s before taking into account the rest of the fill, which needs to be good and not suck. But themed or themeless, when the puzzle works? It’s a great feeling. It keeps me going, certainly.
It also sounds like you went an unusual route for indie constructors: rather than get a few mainstream publications under your belt before building your own site, you started posting puzzles to your blog first. Was it a challenge building up an audience before really beginning to make a name for yourself among the puzzle community? How were you able to get the word out about your site?
PETER: I wasn’t really concerned with building an actual audience. An imagined audience was enough for me back then (and still is now, in fact), since all I really needed was an external source of motivation to keep the work coming. I never really did work that hard to get the word out, and it wasn’t until a wave of other young indie constructors started their blogs and hyped mine that I started to see significant traffic.
EVAN: Do you have other puzzles in the mainstream pipeline that we should anticipate? Or do you wanna keep that hush-hush?
PETER: I’ve got a crossword variant in, I think, the next issue of Will Shortz’s WordPlay. I haven’t been constructing much lately, though.
EVAN: You’ve made many vowelless puzzles for your website. What inspired you to try that, of all types of puzzles?
PETER: I’ve tried my hand at a few other variety types as well, such as diagramless, meta, double-or-nothing, and rows garden (though I’ve yet to finish that one), and the first vowelless was just another experiment. However, I found that I really enjoyed working with the format, so I stuck with it. Plus, the market isn’t exactly saturated with vowelless puzzles and it feels good to have a niche specialty. I mostly like it because it’s like constructing a themeless where you can have big white space and just about any tasty entry that fits will work and you rarely if ever have to rely on crappy crosswordese-y glue entries. That’s not to say that they’re easy to construct, but I find that I can generally fill a vowelless with almost nothing but good, marquee entries. Obviously, the experience of solving them is a little different, but construction-wise I kind of see them as freestyle puzzles with more relaxed grid constraints.
Also, cluing typically proceeds much quicker and is far less excruciating. Cluing a vowelless is not without its challenges and intellectual demands, but there’s simply no room for clever and cryptic misdirection so I don’t have to agonize over finding the perfect sneaky clue for a juicy entry. Plus, since you never really end up with short, overused words in the grid, you don’t have to worry about coming up with a witty new twist on OREO or ETA or whatever.
EVAN: I found that creating the vowelless puzzle for my site last week was especially challenging since I couldn’t use a handy word list from Crossword Compiler to suggest fill entries. I mean, I don’t know how to remove all of the vowels from my word list in one fell swoop. Do you get to use your chops as a computer expert/maven/rock star to help you build vowelless grids, or do you employ the brute force method by plugging away at OneLook.com for hours on end until you get something that works (like I did)?
PETER: All of the above and more. Although I am certainly no computer expert, I do enjoy a spot of script-driven word bending. My first step is, as you’ve surmised, to remove all of the vowels from my word list as well as all of the entries that contain Y (I never use Y in my vowellesses because it’s less confusing that way). When I’m filling, though, I do first try to come up with entries using my brain alone (I do that when I’m filling any type of grid, actually). Though the computer is an integral part of my constructing technique, my brain still has something to bring to the table. And although wading through OneLook can get very tiresome, it can be a source of great new entries, so I’ll definitely turn to it a few times when constructing. For instance, I might fill a section of a vowelless as follows:
1. Having filled another section, I’m left with, say, STR- at the beginning of a long entry that sticks out from the filled section.
2. I’ll brainstorm words or partial words that could use that consonant pattern: ASTRO-, AUSTR-, STORE-, SATURN-, SEA T-R-, S@T R-, STRIP, IS IT R-, I SEE A TR-, etc.
3. I’ll try my best to come up with entries with my brain. STARING CONTEST, SATURN’S RINGS, STRIP POKER, come to mind immediately. Additionally, I might brainstorm and free-associate on some of the more interesting partials (say, IS IT -R-) for a while: IS IT REAL?, IS IT RIGHT?, IS IT A RUSE?, IS IT RELIABLE?, IS IT ART? Obviously not all usable, but it’s worth brainstorming a bit.
4. I’ll check to see what my word list can offer. I also wrote a program that takes a disemvoweled string or partial string as input and returns all fully-formed entries that match. So I can enter STR… and it will return all entries from my word list that have exactly six consonants, the first of which are S, T, and R. That’s a huge time saver when working on a vowelless grid. Finding entries that fit is a challenge, but so is keeping track of what all of the crazy consonant strings you’re working with actually mean.
5. Just to make sure I’m not missing something awesome (I actually have an irrational fear of missing the perfect entry, which is why I compulsively enter EVERYTHING into my word list), I’ll try a few wildcard searches with the best and most promising partials on OneLook. For instance, I had SEA TURTLE in my list but OneLook also gave me SEA TRUMPET and SEA TROUT. Neither are great, but they’d do in a pinch so I add them to my list with a low score just so I have them for next time.
6. After that, it’s just business as usual: a combination of manual and computer-assisted filling to complete the section. Then back to step 1.
On occasion, I’ve also written programs for filling specific sections of a grid. For example, I made a 20×14 vowelless last year for New Years which had a quintuple stack of 14s running down the center. That stack was the result of a stacking program that I wrote which, given a seed, finds all stacks of whatever specified dimensions which include that entry and where all of the crossing strings are fragments of other words in the word list. It was able to find a few sextuple stacks as well, but nothing that I could get to work cleanly.
As an aside: the challenge with writing that program, actually, was not coming up with the brute-force algorithm to find the stacks, but rather coming up with shortcuts for the algorithm so that it completed within the decade. When you start looking at five and six stacks, you’re talking about numbers of possibilities in the 1015 to 1018 range, depending on how many entries of the given length your list has. Even if you’re checking a billion possibilities a second, it’ll still take a billion seconds to check 1018 stacks. A billion seconds is over 31 years.
EVAN: Uh, no, not TMI. Good insight. And it sounds to me like you’re a computer expert — at least, the words “I also wrote a program” means you’re far better at Computer than I. Having a complete, disemvoweled word list would make vowelless construction way easier, though like you said, you still need to use your own judgment in picking out the best answers so that everything’s solvable. This is probably why I’m not worried about robots taking over and enslaving the human race at any point in our lifetime. They can’t even make a sextuple-stack crossword in under 30 years even while working at it at blinding speed and with no break time, and they’re supposed to become our oppressive overlords? Please. Step up your game, Robots.
Got any particular favorite puzzle of yours (vowelless or otherwise)?
PETER: Not really, but a few that I’m proud of come to mind. My Fireball puzzle from last fall was an absolute bear to construct so I was really pleased when it came together and Peter accepted it. Plus, it was quite well received by solvers, which is really the point of it all.
EVAN: I’ve been meaning to ask you about that puzzle. That was a brilliant one. How did you dream it up in the first place? Was that one of those “listening to the Beatles song/listening to ‘Freebird,’ minding your own business, and then thinking, hey, what if I turned this into a two-way rebus puzzle” experiences? Or did you start the puzzle from a simpler idea (like, was it just an EGG rebus with no two-way or meta element)? I feel like every puzzle, even the really memorable ones, sort of starts from some mundane place when you’re doing something else.
PETER: Thanks man. And yeah, even the most high-concept puzzles seem to come from a simple germ of an idea. Most of my themes come from phrases that I hear that could be titles/revealers. I was bumming around in Montreal before heading home after the 2014 ACPT and I was inspired to do some drawing (another hobby from way back). The term cross-hatching (a type of shading typically done in pencil or ink drawing) came to mind, and of course when you’re on theme idea alert any term referring to CROSSing (or a direction, or cryptic anagram instructions, or a short string of common letters, etc) seems especially promising. Then it was just some directed brainstorming on other meanings of HATCHING and how that could be represented in a grid.
And though it’s one of my earlier puzzles and I could maybe execute it better these days, the Mystery of the Tired Theme (which you can find at theindie500.com under PUZZLES) always makes me smile. And I’ve just posted a new freestyle to my blog that I’m pretty happy with I guess. I submitted it for the final Post Puzzler open submission contest or whatever and was planning on submitting it to the New York Times when it didn’t get picked, but fuck it, because who wants to wait a year to hear that it didn’t excite Will enough?
EVAN: Your latest freestyle was a fun though definitely unusual puzzle — loved your answers for 17A, 20A, 36A, 54A, 63A, 6D, 9D, 21D, and 28D; though I also had to take a guess on the 62A/55D crossing.
PETER: Thanks. 17A was one of the seeds, along with 1A. That stack worked out better than I should have expected, looking back.
EVAN: Speaking of the Post Puzzler, I have some news which maybe you already knew, but maybe you didn’t. We knew going into that open submission contest that it would be the final open submission contest with Peter Gordon as editor since he’s stepping down after that puzzle runs (full disclosure: I also submitted to the contest but didn’t win it). What I didn’t know until recently, however, was that no one will be replacing Peter, and so the Puzzler is just coming to an end. I’m told this was Peter’s decision to end it. It’s kind of a reminder of the harsh reality of publishing and crossword publishing specifically, isn’t it? The pay just isn’t that good except for maybe a couple of editors (it’s certainly not very good for constructors), and even a good, well-edited puzzle can always close shop.
PETER: Yeah, that’s a real bummer about the Puzzler. My puzzling week revolves around it; I’m always looking forward to Sunday. It’s of the highest quality and remarkably consistent. Just like how Peter basically turned the New York Sun puzzles into Fireball when the Sun folded, I’m hoping he’ll find some way to continue working with those top-tier freestyle constructors on a regular basis. I, for one, would subscribe.
EVAN: So would I. Okay, a few Big Questions here: even though you’re an admitted serial hobbyist when it comes to crosswords, what do you foresee for the Future of Puzzles™? More and more people appear to be posting their work independently for any number of reasons (long wait times at the New York Times like you mentioned, they want to build their own brand, editorial freedom, etc.). Do you think going indie is the way to go? And what can we do to help expand our reach to those casual solvers who don’t attend crossword tournaments or the MIT Mystery Hunt, but rather sit and solve a puzzle while having breakfast or while riding the bus to work?
PETER: Going indie is the way to go if that’s what makes you happy as a constructor. I mean, it’s not going to make you any money in the short term, especially if you’re a new constructor. It seems like reputable constructors are increasingly able to make non-trivial amounts of money, though, via tip drives, subscription series, and selling puzzle packs, so there’s definitely a long game to it. I never wanted any money out of it, but it was rewarding and motivating for me. Also, I think it would be really easy to get stuck in one style if you only ever published in the NYT, since if you tried something different you wouldn’t get any feedback on it for like six months. So maybe we’ll see more constructors who take chances on different types and styles and who become good all-rounders rather than specialists. Take a guy like Tim Croce, who was a somewhat regular contributor of mostly wide-open themelesses to the Times for a number of years, but has recently started self-publishing and switching up his style by doing tighter themelesses, cool themes, and interesting variety puzzles.
What this actually means for Big Crossword or puzzles in general? Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t think that outlets like the NY Times and LA Times are really feeling any fiscal effects due to this sort of indie competition, but at the very least they’re probably going to start seeing fewer and fewer submissions from big-name constructors. Maybe. I dunno. And will it really make a difference? What sets the Gaffneys and the Paynes and the BEQs apart is the ability to pump out amazing puzzles consistently and often, but lots of constructors can pump out amazing puzzles once in a while, and the NYT submission numbers have been growing, I hear, not dwindling.
As far as the average solver is concerned, I think it’s business as usual. You and I are plugged in to the cruciverbal inner circle and sometimes it seems like our experience as solvers is typical, but it’s really not. I think the biggest difference between the modern self-publishing scene and the traditional newspaper oligopoly is that people don’t have to seek out the newspaper puzzles. I guess the big question for me is not whether enough casual it’s-right-there-next-to-the-classifieds-so-what-the-hell solvers can make the switch to electronic formats or tolerate a bit of salty vocab, it’s whether they will put effort into seeking out puzzles on their own time.
EVAN: Very good points. There’s a big puzzle-solving market out there, and even though the Post Puzzler will be closing, other big mainstream outlets that accept open submissions will probably have a pretty big constructor base willing to create puzzles for quite some time to come. Ultimately, it’s the quality of the puzzles that count, and it’s encouraging to see so many constructors producing quality work outside the mainstream.
Okay, switching gears: you’re in a band, right? Tell us about that. Do you write any of the songs? And where can we listen to some of your band’s jams?
PETER: I only play with one right now, Buffalo Narrows, and honestly I had to hunt to see if we did have stuff online. We’ve done a bit of basement recording, but we’re really more of a live band.
Anyway, some of the old recordings we did are here. But I think we’ll be releasing some higher-quality and different-sounding stuff in a little while. In fact, though we started out as a five-piece bluegrass band, we’re now basically a prog rock trio with occasional guest artists. Really, whichever former members are in town at the time end up doing the show with us, and the instrumentation dictates the sound for the gig. We keep things interesting, which is why I like playing with those guys. Oh, and the songs are written by the vocalist/guitarist, Kieran Semple, I just play the bass. Actually, composition was another one of my onetime hobbies, but I never wrote stuff for small rock/folk band. Modern chamber works, mostly.
EVAN: Awesome! I think my two favorite tracks were “Work Boots” and “Lettuce Weed.”
PETER: Thanks. “Work Boots” is fun to play too.
EVAN: What album(s) are on your playlist right now?
PETER: Don’t have much of a playlist these days; when I put on music at home it’s CBC radio. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of klezmer stuff (editor’s note: that refers to music from Eastern European Jewish tradition) and classic Kate Bush and Mother Mother and I do try to keep up with what’s going on in pop music. I’m presently listening to Tonic, their evening jazz program right now. I like it because jazz is nice for working/writing, although I do find their playlist a bit narrow. I manage to avoid driving for sometimes a week or more, but in the car I’ve currently got a live album by the Klezmer Conservatory Band, “Misled by Certainty” by Cephalic Carnage, and the most underrated album of all time, in my opinion: Suzanne Vega’s dark masterpiece “Days of Open Hand.”
EVAN: Good stuff. Last question: Any advice for the budding crossword puzzle creator or aspiring rock star that you’d like to share?
PETER: Enjoy every sandwich.
EVAN: So true. I’m all about that tuna. I’m not all about that bass — just not my favorite fish. Anyway, great chatting with you, Peter, and thanks for all your great responses.
PETER: Thanks, Evan, for the insightful questions!