Monday 7 March 2011

Interview: Spiffytrix

spiffytrix Ingenuity and wit, a penchant for popular Indian culture, a certain cheekiness – traits we see and love in Spiffytrix's crosswords. In a short time, this setter has inspired plenty of goodwill among The Hindu Crossword solvers, and also plenty of curiosity. Who is Spiffytrix? Discover for yourself in this interview with the flamboyant new setter of The Hindu.

[This is the last instalment of the Hindu Crossword Setter interview series. Links to previous setter interviews consolidated here.]

Q1: Welcome, Spiffytrix. Please tell us about yourself and how you got introduced to crosswords.

Spiffytrix: Thanks Shuchi, it's an absolute honour. I am in my early thirties, an engineer by profession, just another average Joe who happens to love playing around with words and got lucky enough to get published.

During my school days, I used to try my hand at The Telegraph crossword published from Calcutta. I knew nothing about the rules of the game and used to mostly reverse engineer the answers from the published solutions. I started solving The Hindu crossword in my college, initially by brute force approach but then discovered stuff on the internet and like they say 'there was light'.

Q2: When and how did you get into setting for The Hindu?

Spiffytrix: I used to be majorly involved in Lit club activities in school and college. Making up new types of word games, rebuses, brain teasers etc. for various fests and competitions used to be great fun then. Setting crosswords is my way of reliving those days.

Setting for the Hindu happened thanks to Rishikesh (aka Chaturvasi). I used to read his writings/comments on the net about various aspects of setting/solving and had sent across a few of my crosswords for his critique. Then one day he mailed me saying that The Hindu were hiring and that I should give it a shot. And before I knew what I was getting into I was drafted. I am sure he must have put in a few good words. So, if anyone's unhappy with Spiffytrix's published work, now you know whom to blame.

Q3: Your real identity has been a great mystery so far. Why do you choose to remain pseudonymous?

Spiffytrix: But I thought I was you or is it Vinod? Jokes apart, I think it's a non-issue. When I was offered the chance to set for THC, all the setters (except one) were using pseudonyms and their identities were not known and I followed the trend. Also, there is a total disconnect between people who know the real me and Spiffytrix. For instance, when I told one of my friends that I am now making crosswords for the Hindu, he asked me matter of factly " Dude, aren't there computer programs to do that?" I am yet to physically meet a single individual who has solved even a clue of mine, let alone a complete crossword. So, even if I were to say that I am so and so, it would be an anti-climax and not mean anything to most of my solvers and I think Spiffytrix sounds more intelligent than my name.

Q4: How did you come up with the name Spiffytrix?

Spiffytrix: I am a huge fan of Calvin and Hobbes and Asterix comics. Spiff comes from Space man Spiff, the alter ego Calvin assumes whenever he faces a problem, and the -trix is a tribute to the Gaulish spirit. 'Y' stands for the x-factor ;) The 'iffy' in the handle was unintended, but apt like some would say.

Q5: Do you read all the feedback posted about your puzzles on THC solving forums?

Spiffytrix: I know of only The Col's blog and I do read all the comments posted there. If there are other such forums please do let me know. I’ve received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the solvers and it is really humbling. I try to respond to any doubts/clarifications sought but my work commitments generally prevent me from active participation and giving real-time response. Audience feedback is invaluable. It serves as a big reality check and helps me gauge the solver's pulse. I sincerely believe that the solver is always right and they are not obligated to explain themselves. So it feels great when people take the effort to tell you what they liked (or hated) in a clue.

Q6: Your clues often tread the fine line between creative and (and as some say!) unfair. Does negative feedback make you want to give up on experimentation?

Spiffytrix: If you discount two erroneous clues (due to my oversight and the lack of crossword editor for THC) I don't think any of my clues can be termed unfair. Some do bend the rules, but none breaks them. Like the hostel warden at my boarding school used to say - "I am willing to tolerate the occasional bending of rules but nobody can get away with breaking them." Having said that, I realise that it takes some time for solvers to get used to a setter's style and (s)he should win the confidence of the solver before trying to act too smart. So I have toned down my clues and made them more conforming for now. For the record, you are the first person to even remotely suggest that any of my clues is unfair (insert the fuming emoticon here).The worst I have got till now was "iffy" which I could live with (but not unfair :)).

Q7: By "unfair" I did not mean ‘wrong’ but ‘favouring the setter over the solver’. There have been times when almost none of the regular solvers on THCC got your intended answer as the wordplay was too oblique. When that happens, does it take you by surprise? Do you think - "I had expected solvers to struggle with 14d, not with 12a"? Or like an accomplished playwright who places pauses for claps and gasps into the script, can you predict audience reaction?

Spiffytrix: I know, I was just having fun at your expense. Whenever faced with such a clue while setting, I always ask myself “Is it worth it?" Only when convinced that it is good enough to justify the bending of the rules do I green light it. I generally make this allowance when the surface is particularly engaging.

Predicting audience reaction is almost as risky as predicting "what women want". Also one person's elixir is another's poison. But it does worry me if the regular solvers of THCC, who definitely know their crosswords, do not get an intended annotation because that means the casual solvers who do not visit/comment on blogs and for whom crosswords may be just a "time pass" would certainly be lost. On the other hand if I make the wordplay too simple or obvious, the ace solvers would be disenchanted. So striking the balance to please both the connoisseurs and the masses is very important and I envy setters like Sankalak and Gridman for being able to do that consummately for so long.

Q8: What is your method of setting? Do you write all the clues in sequence, in one sitting or in spurts? How long does it take you to set a typical 15x15?

Spiffytrix: I work in a very unorganised and disjointed manner so it is difficult to say how much time I take to set a crossword. I generally start off with a few stock words and spend a considerable amount of time in grid fill so that by the time the grid is complete I have a fair idea about how 50% of the words are going to be clued. During weekdays I can hardly manage time, so I just make a mental note of a few words from the grid each day and mull over the way they can be clued whenever I can, like when stuck in a boring meeting, while commuting, working out or playing etc. Then, on the weekends (generally Friday night) I compile all my thoughts and jottings and complete most of the puzzle. The few clues that elude me or need fine tuning are later dealt with on a piece meal basis.

Q9: Do you have something like a "dream puzzle" that you plan to set some day?

Spiffytrix: Oh there are lots of dream puzzles I would like to set, but the problem is most of them will not find any takers. After all how many would be interested in a Lost (TV series) or heavy metal themed crossword or one based on Murakami's or Doestovesky's books and characters?

I also itch to set something like the ones for Guardian Genius. One particular idea is to have just one paragraph which reads like a short story and contains all the clues in sequence but without any numbering or enumeration. The solvers have to figure out where one clue ends and the other begins. To make it easier the enus will be indicated in the grid :) . Any takers?

Q10: Which puzzles do you solve?

Spiffytrix: I don't get to solve as many as I would like and there is no particular crossword I solve as a routine. Whenever I can manage time, I solve The Times, Guardian, FT or The Hindu. Recently someone pointed me to a link of the crossword published in Mint and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Q11: How has life changed for you after becoming a professional setter?

Spiffytrix: Life changing would be a hyperbole and my volume of work is quite miniscule to have such an effect but seeing one's work in print and getting accolades for it does give an amazing creative high.

At the same time when some clue/crossword which you particularly like and expect to set the house on fire goes unnoticed it pinches...

Q12: Some say that one needs to be an accomplished solver first before moving over to the Dark Side of setting. Do you agree?

Spiffytrix: In engineering parlance we can say it is a necessary but not sufficient condition for being a setter. One obviously should have fairly good solving skills and have their fundamentals in place but need not be the fastest pen (or pencil or keyboard) in the West. It generally takes me 45 minutes to an hour to complete The Times crosswords and I don't think I’ve ever solved a good quality cryptic in less than 20 minutes. That's pretty lousy when compared with those of ace solvers, so if this saying were true I must also be a pretty lousy setter.

Q13: What, then, does it take to be a good crossword setter? Is crossword setting a natural talent or an acquired skill?

Spiffytrix: A bit of both actually. One needs to have a fairly good command over the language, a natural ability for punning and lateral thinking and above all a good sense of humour. Other skills can be acquired with time and perseverance.

Q14: Which crossword setters do you most admire?

Spiffytrix: I know there are many wonderful setters out there whose work I’ve not yet attempted but Paul, Brendan, Anax and Alberich are among my favourite setters, not in any particular order. Also, the entire anonymous team of the Times crosswords.

Q15: If you had to pick two clues of your own that you are proud of, which would they be?

Spiffytrix: I could say something filmy a la Nirupama Roy that all clues are my children and I am proud of all of them. But the fact of the matter is that I don't dwell over my clues, I do have some favourite ones while setting a crossword but forget about them afterwards. Maybe your readers can tell me which their favourites are. I don't think I’ve yet come up with any clues that will be part of crossword folklore and immortalise Spiffytrix. They are still out there somewhere in the labyrinth of my mind.

Q16: Is there a clue type you find particularly tricky to use, or one that you have to make an effort to avoid?

Spiffytrix: It mostly depends on the word being clued, but I am generally wary of homophones simply because they are so subjective and there will invariably be someone who will go "But I don't pronounce it that way."

On the other hand I just love setting clues with letter picking or telescopic devices since there is no deception involved, everything is there in front of you and so obvious. One has to be really creative to mask the answer with a surface which will make the solver go "Ah! How come I didn't see it before?"

Then there are the "tilted in favour of the setter" kind of clues which I try to avoid - believe me I do try :).

Q17: Please share with us some of your memorable crossword-related experiences.

Spiffytrix: One incident that comes to my mind is when we were blessed with our first child in Dec ‘10 and coincidentally my crossword published that day had this clue:

Not in favour of second child? Use this rubber to maintain one's stand! (4-4)

News spread on the blogs about the new arrival and there was a lot of light-hearted banter about the thought process behind writing the clue. There have also been some nice limericks and poems dedicated to me on the blogs which were memorable. Just the other day, for one of my crosswords, Rishikesh had posted that if a compilation of the best 50 Hindu crosswords were to be made this would find a place in it. That was quite touching, coming from someone like him, who must have solved or at least glanced through virtually every crossword ever published in The Hindu.

Q18: What are your interests apart from crosswords?

Spiffytrix: I am an outdoorsy person who likes to escape to the wilderness for a break or adventure sports whenever time permits. I swim, run or play squash and badminton to stay fit. Earning a decent handicap in golf is part of this New Year's resolution.

I used to write a lot about anything and everything but that has virtually stopped now. Writing a novel someday is still on the top of my bucket list. I have always been a voracious reader with special interest in Russian and Oriental literature. I also follow golf (PGA tour) and tennis (ATP /WTA tour) religiously.

Final words -

Thanks for the amazing support and love you have given me in such a short span of time. Do keep it coming and please be forthright in giving honest feedback. Here's hoping that we continue to duel over 225 squares many more times and that you always win since my true victory lies in my defeat. After all, haar ke jeetne waale ko hi Baazigar kehte hai.

Thank you Shuchi for having me here and for your yeo(wo)man service towards uncluing crosswords and making them popular.

More Setter Interviews:

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Anonymous said...

Disappointed ;-)

The corporate veil has not been pierced. :-(

Anyhow, maybe I will be able to unravel Spiffytrix when I go to Zork.

Amrith said...

I am a HUGE fan of Spiffytrix and now that I know the origin of the name, its even more awesome :)
Also, the clever use of 'iffy' was brilliant. spIFFYtrix indeed :)

Awesome interview.
Thank you.
P.S Sad that the king refused!

SandhyaP said...

Intelligent, smart, witty, unpretentious and straightforward...this is how Spiffytrix comes across.

I wish this setter's quota of crosswords could be increased.

Shyam said...

Hi Spiffytrix

I am with the others who want your quota to be raised. Honestly your style is quite fresh, unique and enjoyable.

It is early days still, but I have a minor quibble that at times you do not cross-check the grammar in the cryptic reading. Take this for example:

Skilled worker's supporter is powerless (7)

It reads ARTISAN's PARTISAN is powerless. I don't have a count, but the grammar in the is-has conversion comes out wrong in some clues. Also I fear you at times overdo the use of 'has' as an inclusion indicator.

That I note these is full thanks to Shuchi and Anax! Please do not mistake me that I am being pedantic, Spiffy. I really love your work and just want it to be totally unblemished, while still exercising the occasional freedom :)

Looking forward to your interesting themes :)


Bhavan said...

+1 for raising the puzzle count.

What I like most about Spiffytrix's clues is the non-clichéd wordplay even for done to death words.

More power to the likes of Spiffy.

Deepak Gopinath said...

Great interview, Spiffy has done a good job of concealing his identity but 'Lost (TV Series)' and 'Heavy Metal' seems to ring a bell somewhere.
Add my vote for increase in quota

Anonymous said...

I am sometimes preposterous, but my heart is in the right place, I am told. I am not for upping the count, I am for swapping the count with someone else, instead of 1:6, I vote for 6:1. Of course, Spiffy, old thing (no gender bias here, see?), you will have to spend more time to entertain us. And may SS's death ray be with you.

veer said...

Nice to note the spiffy use of the absurd time we spend on boring meetings. Now I quite don't feel as guilty letting my wander and think about clues to submit to DIYCOW or elsewhere when I am in these "boring" meetings.

Interesting interview to read - looks like Spiffytrix and Neyartha are like the S(piffy..) and N(eya..) poles when it comes to the cryptic setting process but solving produces equally enjoyable effects.

I wonder who else is left on the THC stable that Shuchi has not covered, Manna? Maybe as a bonus she can also dial in an interview with Everyman (is he Roger Squires?) - wonder if Everyman knows his puzzles have admirers in India.

Chaturvasi said...

Everyman is Allan Scott, I think.

Go to

and scroll down to Allan Scott.

Chaturvasi said...

Everyman is reproduced in The Hindu every Sunday with six or seven weeks' time-lag fromits appearance in the UK. This for the past several decades.
Roger Squires's syndicated 13x crossword is reproduced in many newspapers in India. New Indian Express has been using this since the Seventies (from the time before it took a freshness in its title in the South).

Both these setters have a huge, dedicated and appreciative following. Advanced solvers who complete Times, Guardian, Independent or even FT crosswords must be a very small percentage of the total number, in itself a small percentage of total readership.

maddy said...

Hi Shuchi,

Thanks for the series of interviews. Wonder why Gridman refused. BTW did Spiffy reveal his identity to you?

anax said...

Oh wow! Mentioned in dispatches. Spiffytrix, my sincerest thanks for listing me among your favourite setters - I'm thrilled and humbled.
And I'm particularly happy that you've included my friend Alberich; from the occasional FT appearance he's now a solid member of the Independent team (as Klingsor) and is gaining an awesome and justified reputation - I've long been a fan of his puzzles. We also seem to share a similar approach to clue-writing even though we've developed independently.
Thanks again for mentioning us; a drizzly day just turned into a sunny one.

Unknown said...

Thanks everyone for your kind words.

@ Shyam - Mea Culpa. Point noted.

@ Anax - Pleasure is all mine. I never miss a Loroso/ Alberich FT puzzle . here' shoping you also end up solving a crossword of mine one of these days :)