February’s Indie Spotlight travels to California to interview Paolo Pasco, a high school senior who has made quite a mark on the puzzling community. Paolo debuted in the New York Times in 2015 (on a Friday), and at the American Values Club, where he has been a frequent guest and is now a regular, in 2016. He has constructed for both Lollapuzzoola (where he won both the Rookie and Local divisions in 2016) and Indie 500. Since last summer, he’s been publishing puzzles on his own site, Grids These Days. I caught up with Paolo in between his school trips to chat about creative control, the indie community, and the links between crosswords and improv comedy.
Describe “Grids These Days” in ten words or less, or in an anagram or palindrome.
“Like any other crossword outlet, but with more Vine references.”
What made you want to start your own indie site? Do you consider it a successful project so far?
I realized that I had a lot of crossword ideas that I really wanted to share with people, but were either too weird or too niche-y to be published in any outlet. I’d been wanting to go indie for a while too (after admiring puzzles by greats like Erik Agard and Chris King for years), so this felt like a good step to take. Also, I once had a Beyonce reference edited out of one of my clues, and having control over my own puzzles would let me make sure that that never happened again. That points to my main reason for starting an indie site: freedom. There’s a lot of room to play around with the kinds of weirder, form-pushing puzzles that wouldn’t fly in a mainstream outlet. Plus, it’s a great opportunity to inject more of my personal voice/personality/experiences into crosswords, which is an opportunity that I, as a millennial, crave.
I haven’t been updating the site as much as I’d like to lately, but I’d still say the project is a personal success. I’ve had fun doing it, and from the feedback I hear, there are at least some people who enjoy the puzzles. That’s all I need.
What advice would you give a constructor who might be considering “going indie”?
Solve a lot of puzzles, so you know what works for solvers and what doesn’t. Also, find your “voice” as a constructor. I don’t have the most tangible grasp on what this means, but just find what makes the puzzles you write unique, and run with that. Also, be sure to reach out to other people in the indie community. They’re some of the nicest and most supportive people around, and they’ll be there if you ever need help. Try collaborating with someone! Don’t do it just for the sake of networking — working with other puzzle people is a fantastic experience, and your life will be so much better as a result.
Behind the Grid: What’s your puzzle biography? How did you get started solving and/or constructing puzzles?
I’ve been doing puzzles since I was young, but they were mostly of the sudoku/logic variety. I shied away from crosswords for a while, because I was that kind of pretentious kid who looked down on puzzles that weren’t “pure logic” or whatever. The crossword thing came around eighth grade, when I was solving through Will Shortz Picks His Favorite Puzzles. I loved the “aha moment” that came with crosswords — when a theme came together, or when I finally figured out a tricky clue, it was a pure rush.
My first actual attempt at constructing was when I tried to make a crossword for my brother’s birthday. I drew out a 15×15 grid, filled in three entries, then immediately got stuck and threw the puzzle away. I like to think I’ve gotten better since then.
What is your favorite type of puzzle/game to solve/play?
I’ve always admired variety cryptics, especially from the Wall Street Journal, Patrick Berry, and Kevin Wald. They’re always well-made, they’re always challenging at first, and the payoff is always incredible. This Patrick Berry joint in particular stuck with me as one of the coolest puzzles ever. I’ve been trying to diversify lately, though; last month I remotely solved for the 2018 MIT Mystery Hunt, which felt like puzzles on steroids. I got almost no sleep over that weekend, but it was the most fun I’ve ever had as a solver. I love puzzles like this one, where you get a meaningless jumble of information, and gradually sort it out until you get a final payoff. In terms of other puzzles, escape rooms are extremely my jam.
What else do you do in life? How does it intersect with puzzle constructing?
I joined my school’s improv team earlier this year, and it’s one of my favorite things to do now. There’s a surprising amount of overlap between improv and crossword constructing. Both of them involve finding associations between ideas. With a crossword, it’s trying to think of a fun way to clue an entry. You have a starting point (say, the word MATCH), and there are different paths of meaning that you can take from that point (a boxing match, a match in a matchbox, Match.com, et cetera). Improv works about the same way. My team mainly does short form, Whose Line Is It Anyway?-style games, all based on audience suggestions. Given a suggestion from the audience as a starting point, there are different scenes and dynamics that can come from that point. Improv and crosswords both demand an ability to take what you already know, and make quick associations based on that. There are also a few pun-based games which have a much more direct link with crossword construction; as often as punny Sunday themes make me want to cringe, being exposed to puns is really useful when you have to make them up on the fly.
In addition, improv is like crossword constructing in that they’re both cool to me, but are basically useless when it comes to getting a girlfriend.
Thank you for speaking with the Fiend, Paolo! We look forward to seeing what you accomplish!