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Interview with Paul Coulter

Interview with Paul Coulter


PC: Paul Coulter
KM: Kevin McCann

KM:     Hi Paul, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for I've been wanting to do interviews for site visitors for a while now, and thought I'd start with today's most prolific puzzle constructors. 

Before I get to that, maybe you could tell me a bit about yourself.


PC:     Hi Kevin, thanks for doing this. I'm a retired biology professor from the Philly area. I have a grown son and daughter, and two granddaughters. Fortunately, my son and his family live very close, so I get to see them a lot. My daughter lives near Nashville, so not so much in her case. 

These days, I spend most of my time writing novels. Each afternoon when I finish that day's segment, I work on crossword construction to relax. My major hobby was soccer until six years ago. I played in college and also coached MIT's first women's varsity team for a few years in my twenties. I still watch a lot of games, both collegiate and pro, but after fifty years of playing, bad knees finally forced me to hang up the cleats.  Now, crosswords fill up all the time I used to spend on playing in outdoor and indoor leagues.     


KM:   How did you get into crossword puzzle construction?


PC:     I got into American style crosswords fairly late. For many years, I've done cryptics. One great thing about the internet age is that we have daily access to fantastic puzzles like those in the Guardian, Telegraph, and Times (of London.) These are set at a much more challenging level than most cryptics you might find in America. Once you become used to the difficulty level, and of course the British references, they're wonderfully enjoyable. I still do three or four cryptics every evening.

About ten years ago, my mother mentioned that my aunt was delighted since she'd completed the NYT Sunday puzzle in under an hour, a lifelong goal. I decided to see if I could do the same. The same puzzle took me thirteen minutes. I hadn't known I had a knack for speed solving, but I started practicing to see if I could get down below ten minutes for a Sunday NYT. This happened rapidly, so I started doing competitions. At a Lollapuzzoola event, I happened to sit next to Erik Agard. We got to chatting about construction, so I decided to try my hand. My first attempts were terrible, but Erik was kind enough to look these over. He emailed me some tips and I improved. Brad Wilbur was also very helpful early on.


KM:    I'll assume you are a solver as well as a constructor. As a solver, do you have any favorite constructors? As a constructor, did you ever draw inspiration from any of them?


PC:     I'm always happy to see a Berry themeless. The meticulous care of Patrick's construction never fails to delight. Stella Z's grids on her Tough as Nails site also tend to land in my sweet spot. My other favorite is another Patrick. I always looked forward to the monthly puzzle on PB's old site. And of course the Blindauer puzzlefests. I also enjoy doing metas from constructors like Pete Muller and Matt Gaffney, though Matt's week 4/5 and Pete's late-year puzzles usually defeat me.

I wouldn't say that any of my themes have been sparked by other constructors, but it's remarkable how many times I've come up with a theme only to find in my research that something similar has been done already. Or to see something appear in print a few weeks after I've submitted a related theme. Sometimes, an editor informs me that he or she can't use one of my grids since they already have something like it in the pipeline. I'm sure all constructors have this problem. One time, Peter Gordon told me that nearly identical submissions had arrived from me and Alex E-S on consecutive days. He couldn't use the idea for the Fireball, as it wasn't tricky enough, but advised us to work together and submit the collaboration to another venue.


KM:     When I was adding puzzles to my crossword database I noticed some of the same names coming up over and over. Yours was one of them. In 2021 you had 34 puzzles in the LA Times, Universal (Andrew McMeel Publications) and the Wall Street Journal. Interestingly, On Jan 7, 2021 you had a puzzle appearing in all three of those venues.   A trifecta !!!

You had 54 puzzles published in 2020 and a whopping 60 in 2019. That's a lot of puzzles. How did you get to be so prolific? How do you continually come up with so many workable themes?


PC:     I have a lot of free time now. I like taking long walks with my dog. I think about my next day's writing, and when I'm done, I think about crossword themes. I like to build off phrases that direct some action. These become the title, or a reveal. For instance, "Get the lead out!" becomes a deletion of the letters PB into something that makes sense. Or maybe, "There's love in the air," which tells us to insert O into a song title, creating some humorous phrase. For me, themes are always better when there's a solid reason for doing them.


KM:      After having so many puzzles published do you find that editors are changing fewer and fewer of your submitted clues? Or are they somewhat consistent?


PC:     Actually, when you do a lot of puzzles, the editors want you to be careful to use different clues for words you've used before. I'm not very proficient with things like spreadsheets, so the clueing requires a lot of work in order to maintain variety. I like clever clues, and I try to put one or two with "cryptic definition" readings into each grid. Some editors change a great deal from the original submission and some don't.


KM:     What are your constructing methods and tools? Do you use Crossword Compiler or Crossfire, or are you old-school with paper, pencil and eraser? And how about databases? Do you use any of the databases out there to help you with your grid fills?


PC:     I use an older version of .ccw  to fill initially.  Then I go through grids section by section, editing by hand until I feel I've achieved smooth fill.  I use Puzzle Tracker, OneLook, WordListed, and to search for interesting fill or to help out in difficult spots.

 Editors have particular words they won't use.  Some of these lists are extensive.  I wish I had separate word lists from which I could fill for different venues, but my computer skills are limited, so I do this mostly from memory.  I also check Puzzle Tracker to see if a word has appeared in that venue recently.  But I inevitably miss some of the dislikes, then I get dinged.  Often, removing one word doesn't only kill that section, but radiates throughout the puzzle, and I have to start again.



KM:     How do you keep track of your theme ideas and the development of them? Spreadsheet, notebook and pen, some other method?


PC:     After searching Fiend and the various databases to see if a reveal or theme answer has been used before, I do a search of my email. Sometimes, I'm surprised to see I've submitted a similar idea a few years back. For ideas that are a go, I keep notes on paper. They're in piles all over my house. Often, they're in the margins of a cryptic I was doing when the idea came to me.

KM:     Many solvers and constructors are fascinated by words, letter combinations, wordplay and so on. Then there is the trivia aspect. It's nice to learn something by solving a crossword puzzle, and cool to inject some interesting info into cruciverbal creations. Are you more on the wordy side, or are fascinating facts just as important to you?


PC:     I'm what you'd call a word nerd. My mother was an English teacher, and I've always liked words. I like playing with their structure - tenses, plurals, anagrams, reversals, containers, deletions, insertions, etc. Also, when I research material for novels, I often come across an interesting fact that turns into a theme.


KM:     What kind of reactions do you get from people if/when you mention that you make crossword puzzles, get them published regularly and are paid to do so? The raised eyebrow? The "Suuuure you do" nod?


PC:     Actually, it rarely comes up. A soccer buddy once mentioned seeing my byline. And this Christmas, I received a card from a fraternity brother who writes each year. He mentioned seeing my name in a syndicated LAT online, and asked if I was that Paul Coulter. Not many friends from soccer or my college days know I construct, so it was nice to get these comments.


KM:     Have you been to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament? If and when things get back to normal do you think you might attend?


PC:   I attended for ten years.  I cracked the top fifty only once, but that felt great.  I liked the online version last year -- I think from now on, I may do it this way.

        I'm awkward at conversation, so in-person conventions make me feel anxious.  But I do like online chats.  For me, one of the nicest aspects of constructing is when I have a puzzle in the LAT that day, I always check in at the Crossword Corner.  Folks enjoy hearing about the theme's origins.  There's a nice give and take, not only about puzzles, but about life in general.  The gang there is the friendliest bunch you'd ever meet, no negativity whatsoever.  A warm shout-out to C. C. for hosting this great spot.

KM:     Finally, some people get into puzzle construction for a very short time. Maybe it's a bucket list thing. Others stay in the game for decades. Do you think that crossword construction is something you will be doing for a long time to come, or are you more inclined to move on to other life pursuits?


PC:      I'll probably construct until I drop.  I relax in the evening, but during the day, I always need something to do.  I enjoy writing, but it's definitely work, not fun.  Constructing crosswords is a form of mental stimulation that I find enjoyable.  In fact, I submit so many puzzles, most editors have put limits on how many grids in progress I can have with their venue concurrently.  You've noted I'm prolific, but in fact, only about ten percent of my grids have ever been published.  Many of my favorites have been rejected by all venues, usually the trickiest themes.  One nice thing about going to ACPT in person was that I'd put out printed piles of these tricky themes.  Then I'd often get feedback on them from other crossword fans.


       Once again, thanks for doing this, Kevin.  And thanks for providing the terrific services on Cruciverb.  I use them nearly every day.



 KM:     Thank you, Paul!





Paul's previously unpublished puzzle:  Front To Back


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