PROGRAM: [Across Lite]
BEQ: Tell me a little bit about your puzzle writing history.
Brad: I was a regular solver of the New York Times puzzle throughout my teens, at first leaning heavily on crossword dictionaries, and then pushing through brain-only. Right after I graduated from college, I spent a few months in my pajamas unemployed, so out came the graph paper and pencils (this was 1991, people). I got a foothold with Dell Champion magazine and then with Simon & Schuster. I did a lot of themed puzzles throughout the 1990s. When my job entered academia, I took a couple of years off simply because of workload, but I got my first acceptance at the New York Times about 2004, and then the arrival of "Wordplay" birthed a desire to be part of a crossword culture.
BEQ: I think of you as a themeless guy. How do you go about making the grids?
Brad: I build very few grids completely from scratch. I have a library of very basic open grids, sorted by the "predominating" letter length in the stacking. I pick one when I have a seed entry or two in mind, and tweak it accordingly. I just finished a grid with Doug Peterson where we managed to stack three seed entries on top of each other, so that's an example of something recent where I made the grid from the ground up.
BEQ: Your grids seem to be very proper-noun-heavy. Is that a stylistic choice? Happy accident? Little of both?
Brad: I guess you'd say it's a stylistic choice, though it's not always a conscious one at every click through the grid. Obviously, a finished crossword grid is the product of myriad individual choices building on each other, and how badly you want to keep intact the ground you've already covered. I do tend to pick compound entries over single words, and maybe that populates the puzzle with names or book titles or song titles or whatever. The kind of clues I like writing, and seeing, influence fill selection, too. If you work my puzzles, especially the ones that are self-published, you know you'll be dwelling not just in the land of vocabulary but in the land of trivia. I've said publicly that my crossword career is a lot about trying to achieve balance between the two, with the scales even tipping a bit toward strictly vocabulary.
There's this sphere of fill that almost everyone acknowledges to be crap. But there's this gray area of fill and a debate whether it intersects with so-called general knowledge... that provokes the kind of discussion that happened recently on Tyler Hinman's blog. A response from Will Shortz seemed to say that he wishes some within the puzzle community would ease up on the notion that the clues must be the only source of real difficulty in any given grid; that the entries themselves must be very centrist. How does a themeless specialist stand out when the editors' in-trays and in-boxes are overflowing with many more submissions than they can use? A dip into the well of proper nouns might help. The editor likes it, great. Now you'll just wait and see whether the readership feels key entries lacked recognizability or "shelf-life," and you're left wondering whether another vocab-only choice would have been branded "boring." "Fun" to one person is "a slog" to another.
Many in the crowd doing themeless puzzles have "seen it all," so to speak, but there are probably many other solvers trying to stretch themselves by breaking into weekend-difficulty puzzles after mastering Wednesday and Thursday. How to give everybody both novelty and a sense of safety? The editors have it tough, and they probably get criticized for their selectivity seeming capricious. I'm by no means batting 1.00, but I have established long-standing relationships with multiple editors, enough to suspect that I'm giving at least some of the people what they want.
I think for many constructors you enjoy their body of work more once you really get to know their playbook. I'm one of those for other people, I think. But chalk me up as one of those people who doesn't mind learning a new word from someone else's puzzle. Some time ago I needed every crossing to get NICKI MINAJ, and then suddenly she was everywhere. Today you might need every crossing to nail down some corner of mine. I don't know if it will enrich your life or vault you up 20 spots at the next tournament, but file the nugget away and see what happens.
BEQ: Recently you've started to collaborate on puzzles with other constructors.
Brad: Yeah, I gave an interview several years ago to C.C. Burnikel's L.A. Times Crossword Corner, issuing an open invitation to anybody who might want to work together. Doug [Peterson] was the first to reply, and we seemed to click right away. We're the same age within a few weeks, so a lot of our pop-culture reference points sync up well. We just tend to like a lot of the same fill, and we found that our process for filling and cluing our solo puzzles is quite similar. One of us will usually send the other a grid with a corner or two filled in, a seed entry or two in plain view, and the other will finish. If the "starter" turns out to be so restrictive that the other guy doesn't get a chance to shine, so to speak, with some seed entries of his own, we often start over. Not being afraid to start over is a great thing for any constructor, but in collaboration it especially helps because when the "worst case" remains on the table we can be more honest if we think certain fill choices are going to stand in the way of a sale. Usually Doug and I can manage it so that the puzzle grid and the clues are split about 50 / 50 -- not every time, certainly, but often. In cases where it's not quite even, we have stories of where one made a great "save" of the other's overambitious starter.
I've also worked with a few other constructors, too, quite happily, and you'll see the results coming up, I hope. Those experiences are great because I get a glimpse into other successful techniques that may not be part of my normal M.O. I know I've grown as a grid builder by working with other people, for example. And being exposed to some fill instincts that are fundamentally different from mine but in many cases maybe more in touch with what editors and solvers are looking for. I try to internalize the lessons there. That alone is worth splitting the fee, to me. And I enjoy just the general rewards of an inside view of a talented colleague doing their thing.
BEQ: You used to have an opera blog. Tell me a little bit about that.
Brad: I got into opera because of crosswords. I realized the whole arena of opera was a lacuna in my solving knowledge, and I set out to do a bit of self-education. Before long I found myself buying quite a few recordings and even lurking on an opera listserv. Within the context of that online discussion group I developed a reputation for being the fellow with a good memory for singers' and conductors' upcoming assignments, particularly at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Several people urged me to go public with the compilation, and eventually I did. Over the course of fifteen years the Met Futures site moved around a few times and eventually came to rest at my own URL. People from all over the world wrote to contribute items they'd seen in print, online, or heard about in conversation, to the point where I had repertory and casting bits 5 or 6 years in advance. I don't think it's an overstatement to say the site became something of an institution to a certain subset of the Met fan base [larger than you might think but probably still small in terms of the Met's total ticket sales].
During the last couple of years, I began to hear murmurs that the current Met administration was not as indulgent about the site's existence as the previous one. Last spring about this time, a lawyer from the Met telephoned me and asked me to consider taking the Met Futures list down, and I agreed. Many fans felt I didn't fight hard enough to keep the site alive, but I wanted to make peace. General manager Peter Gelb is understandably trying to corral the flow of information out of the house, and there's no question it's much easier to persuade me to go away than it is to muzzle every person who might be in a position to know more information than the Met has announced to the public. The Met has treated me very well throughout the process. The only major regret I have is that in all their public statements about the matter the Met chose to paint me mostly as a purveyor of inaccuracies, when over the years I got much more right than wrong. But I get why it's important to them to underscore the reliability of official information, when it comes, at the expense of a grassroots version that can't be definitive.
The eternal debate is whether the site was innocently generating interest in artistic plans or maliciously stealing the Met's thunder by "leaking" them early. At any rate, I'm out. In just a few days I'm leaving to see the last few performances of the Met season in person, so I'm excited about that. I'll see a few crossword chums down there, doubly precious to me since I was on the sick list during this year's ACPT.
Actually, for a variety of reasons, my whole web site is gone, not just the opera content. I wasn't doing much with it except posting a monthly puzzle, so for now I'm distributing the puzzle by e-mail and posting it to Crossword Fiend.