PROGRAM: [Across Lite]
Matt was a kind soul to give you the lead-in which we've up above. So enjoy. Now, on to the interview:BEQ: When I was solving the original version of this puzzle, I was convinced that there was some sort of Easter Egg that I was missing. Have you ever successfully pulled off a hidden message? Matt: I wish! I want to hide Easter Eggs in my puzzles, but I never manage it. The closest I've come in print is my Valentine's Day puzzle with Pete [Muller] last year, where we managed to hide both our wives' names in the fill. I finally do have a puzzle coming out in the Times that has an Easter Egg, though. If you see a puzzle of mine that appears to be a themeless, it's probably worth taking another look at. BEQ: Tell me a little bit about your background. Matt: I run a software company. If you're interested, click to see what we do. (It's actually much cooler than I let on!)
Crossword-wise, I've been interested in constructing since the mid-'70s, when I wrote what was (I think) the world's first automated filling program. Then I basically put it aside until maybe four years ago, when I took a month off from work to unwind. Pete, who's a good friend of mine, had been making crosswords, and I figured I would give it a shot as well.
There are two things that I love about constructing. The first is that it's such a contained problem. You think of a theme, fill the grid, clue it, send it off to whomever, and it's done. Closure. There is zero closure running a business or raising kids; I often tell the kids that I envy mail carriers because when the letters are all delivered, they're done. Just flat out finished. Crosswords are like that, and it's a great feeling.
The second thing I love about constructing is the community. I've done a wide variety of things in my life, and generally when you get to the top levels of almost anything, the people are jerks. The crossword community isn't like that. Will [Shortz] is a great guy. Merl [Reagle] is fantastic, as is pretty much everyone else. It's really a pleasure to be part of this community. I look forward to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament every year because of how much I enjoy spending time with the people.BEQ: What role have computers played in your making and cluing puzzles? Matt: I certainly use computers whenever I can. But the idea is always to use them to construct a better puzzle. So on the filling side, I fill the puzzles one word at a time, using computers to check at each point to see if I've somehow painted myself into a corner. On the cluing side, I've got a big database that I use to see what's been done before (it's free). But again, the idea is to help ensure that my clues are fresh.
The clue database tool has been an interesting adventure. I wrote it because I wanted to be able to construct on planes (I travel a lot for work), and back then, there was no internet in the air so cruciverb.com wasn't available. So I made a tool that served many of the same purposes but was self-contained. I was happy to give it away to the construction community, and I think that pretty much every constructor uses it at this point. Very few of them ever tell me, though!
Finally, on computers and themes, I often write special software to see what a particular theme looks like. So let's say I was doing a "word ladder" theme, where the fill includes ROAD TOAD TOLL TOLD BOLD BALD BALI in that order, clued as "Cosby/Hope comedy" or something like that. Maybe there would be other word ladders as well. I would have written code to (a) find all "x to y" entries in my big word list and the (b) find the shortest word ladder from x to y for each such entry. Then I'd look at all of them and see if there appeared to be a good theme there. Something that I want to do at some point (if it's possible!) is create a crossword with two distinct solutions. That's totally a computer thing.
That said, though, the idea for the theme is always mine alone. Computers can't help with that. Not yet, at least.BEQ: Your puzzles have a certain non-traditionalism to themselves, dare I say even "varietyesque nature" to coin a phrase (though you certainly have made some variety puzzle, too). Matt: That's flattering, but I'm not sure it's right. I do try to make my puzzles weird in some way, but the truly weird ones often (rightly) don't see the light of day. I once made a puzzle around the (gramatically correct) sentence, "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo". That was a disaster, and I'm amazed that my test solvers stayed with me.
My favorite variety puzzle is the takeaway puzzle that appeared in the Times on 5/17/09. The idea was that all the clues were like "German indus*rial ci*y" where it's clear that a T has been removed. The fill was the answer (Stuttgart), also with the T removed, in this case to produce "sugar". It's cute because "sugar" is still a word. All of the entries were like that, and people really seemed to like it. There will be another takeaway crossword in the Times reasonably soon, I think; maybe over the summer.BEQ: Finally, since this puzzle was built around a joke, I have to ask: do you have any others? Matt: You should hope I don't! I would think that one of these would be enough for a lifetime.
That said, though, I've always liked this joke. It was made up by a good friend of mine in college, a guy named Geoff Blandy. The delivery was my invention; I was applying to grad school at the time and figured that if I didn't get in I would need some alternate career like being a standup comic. My kids love this joke and I get a big kick out of watching them try to tell it.