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Local judge and puzzle creator Vic Fleming celebrates 100 years of crosswords.
Vic Fleming is a judge, author, professor and crossword puzzle enthusiast and constructor. His puzzles have appeared in The New York Times (including co-authorship of the recent Christmas Day puzzle), Games Magazine, Simon & Schuster puzzle books and many other venues. A recently released book, 100 Years, 100 Crosswords, celebrating this year’s centennial anniversary of the art form, features three of his puzzles.
Q: Tell me a little about the anniversary book. I understand each puzzle has a theme for a specific year going back to 1913, the crossword’s date of birth. How do you build a puzzle around a year? Do you look for events or trends to make clues or answers? Or both?
A: Theme development is step one of any puzzle. If the theme is a year in history, I research that year. The puzzle might feature events of that year, highlights of one event for which that year is known, or something quirky — like math tricks with the digits in that year’s identity.
Q: I’m also curious about the specifics of being invited to the project. Obviously your byline is known, but did the editor or publisher let you pick your years? I mean, a year like 1968 could fill a book. But, like, 1936? Seems like it’d be tough.
A: Peter Gordon oversees Sterling Publishing’s Puzzlewright Press imprint. From 2002-08, he was also puzzle editor for the New York Sun. He’s talented, clever and much more! A while back, Peter announced that, to celebrate the crossword’s 100th birthday (Dec. 21, 2013), he’d publish a book in which each puzzle would address one of those years. He solicited theme queries on a freelance basis. If he liked your theme for a given year, then you got that segment of the project, so to speak.
Q: Your Christmas Day puzzle was your 35th in the prestigious New York Times, long famed for its puzzles. You mentioned your original goal in 2005 was to get just one published. I gotta think that kind of success makes you smile. How do you celebrate each one getting published? Anything specific?
A: Heh heh! I no longer do anything specific. My wife, Susan, had the first two framed. That cost more than the Times paid for puzzles then. There’s not much revenue in puzzles, but I figured we didn’t have to lose money.
Q: You mentor new puzzle authors across the country, from a teenager in Virginia to a mom in Michigan. What’s the process of mentoring like and how do those connections get formed? Do they get your name from bylines or see you in Wordplay or what?
A: In 2003, in my 12th rejection note, Will Shortz suggested I join cruciverb.com and get a mentor. I followed his advice. I was mentored by Peter Abide of Biloxi, Miss., and Nelson Hardy of Smithville, R.I., in 2004. They showed me what I was doing wrong, told me how to do it right, co-authored puzzles with me, and then cut me loose. In gratitude to them, I mentor newbies myself now. Someone posts, “I think I need a mentor.” I volunteer. I’m proud when my mentees do well. Sam Ezersky, a high school senior in Alexandria, had two daily N.Y. Times puzzles and a Sunday L.A. Times published in 2012, the year he started making puzzles!
Q: I understand you’re also part of a project to help digitize the entire library of crosswords from The New York Times going back to when they first appeared in 1942. Is that a matter of squinting at microfiche and copying clues by hand? How does it work and where can people learn more about it?
A: At age 15, David Steinberg of Los Angeles (he’s 16 now and has had six crosswords in the Times), in concert with crossword collector Barry Haldiman of Shawnee Mission, Kan., decided to oversee the conversion of all Times puzzles to digital format. The process is called “litzing,” from the “lit” in AcrossLite, a brand of crossword-solving software. David sends a week’s worth of Times puzzles in PDF format, and some do look like poor copies made from microfiche. Using my software, I make a puzzle grid and input the answers and clues. When I’m done with the week, I send them to David. David has 30+ litzers. In six months, I’ve litzed 150 or so. In a similar time frame, one guy has litzed 1,600. Read all about it at preshortzianpuzzleproject.com.
Q: I gotta ask, as a teacher, do you ever mix passion and profession? Seems like the legal field would lend itself to all kinds of crossword clues with its Latin vocabulary. Ever issue a pop quiz in puzzle form? Or at least wanted to?
A: Since Shortz became puzzle editor of the Times (1993), the trend in crosswords is toward fresh, lively, in-the-language vocabulary. Obscure foreign words, Nigerian rivers and bacteria strains need not apply. Your question proves that the perception persists among some that puzzles are laced with obscurities.
I use crosswords in the classroom. I teach law and literature, and puzzles have things in common with other forms of writing. Plus, the solution process for a crossword is a near-perfect analogy to most problem-solving, in that it’s usually best to find something you know and build on it, rather than wallow around in areas you know nothing about. Also, two elements tend to pervade in puzzle-solving: theme and strategy. I believe the same may be said of life itself and virtually all of life’s activities. I challenge you to tell me something in life where discerning a theme and devising a strategy is not helpful.
I’ve made several puzzles with legal themes. My favorite was co-authored with Bruce Venzke of Madison, Wis., in a Simon & Schuster book. The title of the puzzle was “You Be the Judge.” Four long answers were what lawyers say when they object: Irrelevant! Immaterial! Incompetent! Prejudicial! (Anyone who’s ever watched Perry Mason may recall that the prosecutor, Hamilton Burger, often objected, “Your Honor, that’s incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial!”) The fifth theme answer, across the center of the grid, was the judge’s reply: Objection _! The last word could be “sustained” or “overruled,” and, actually, it could be both. We’d come up with seven vertical answers, where each clue would work for both of those words. E.g., “Kind of day to stay home on” could be snow or slow. “Positive crowd noises” could be rahs or aahs. “It may be rolled out” could be rig or rug. Etc.
Q: I’m sure you’ve answered this before, but I can’t end without asking where your passion for puzzles comes from. When and how did you get into them in the first place? And when did you go from working them to writing them? Or did you work them at all before you started making them?
A: My mom got me started solving when I was in junior high. I solved sporadically through high school and college. And then pretty regularly through law school and thereafter. Mom and I solved together a lot during her lifetime. She died in 2002. I started making crosswords the next year. I’d see the bylines in Times puzzles and think, “I don’t know these people, but if they can do it, I can do it.” So, I learned how. And, thus, became one of those people.
The book 100 Years, 100 Crosswords, edited by Peter Gordon and featuring Fleming’s work, is available now from Puzzlewright Press of New York.