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60 Seconds With Sande Milton

A chat with one of the New York Times Crossword constructors.

Credit...Illustration by Ben Kirchner

Tallahassee, Fla.

My first puzzle was published with Jeff Chen in The New York Times on May 30, 2018.

My father got me interested in puzzling when I was around 10. I cut my teeth on the New York Post crossword, and I remember looking up my unsolved words the next day. I became very familiar with ERS, ANOAS, ATENS and the like. Didn’t know what a single one meant, but I could write them in fast.

When I tried my hand at solving the New York Times Crossword, I realized that those bits of crosswordese were no longer of much use. But, from a modern perspective, The Times wasn’t perfect, either. The main criterion for a word being “legal” was that you could find it somewhere, anywhere — buried in the O.E.D., Britannica, Gray’s Anatomy or Hammond’s World Atlas.

That’s all changed now: The words used are “in-language” and relevant. Grids have become artistic, themes continue to amaze and clues are harder and more poetic than ever. What a privilege to have witnessed and experienced this incredible evolution.

After I got pretty good at solving, I took to pen rather than pencil, like many of us. Then I went to filling in only the theme entries.

Constructing was the next challenge. (I submitted two puzzles in the early 1970s, when Will Weng was editor. I tried to sneak the word BULTACO by him, thinking he might not catch that it was a brand name of a Spanish motorcycle. Can you imagine?) More than 40 years later, I tried again. I contacted Nancy Salomon through a link on Cruciverb and ended up working with Jeff Chen as a collaborator and mentor.

Meeting Merl Reagle was also an inspiration. My son and I were competing in a nearby puzzle tournament at the University of Florida. When we broke for lunch, I found my wife, Fely, hanging around with the puzzle spouses, deep in conversation with Merl’s partner, Marie, whom she had just met. The Reagles had been shopping the idea of a national online puzzle competition to benefit Alzheimer’s research, but with little success. As luck would have it, Fely was the lobbyist in the Florida Legislature for the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. A phone call and a week later, the Reagles were at the A.F.A.’s national headquarters on Madison Avenue working out the details of using a puzzle contest as a fund-raiser.

I feel like having a puzzle to work on is like having the nastiest Saturday puzzle of all time staring me in the face all day long. I try to explain to friends how construction differs from solving. When you’re solving a tough puzzle, and you’ve got one last corner to fill in that’s driving you crazy, at least you know there’s a solution.

When a constructor faces the last corner, there may not be a solution at all. And how do you know when to quit looking and rip out what you’ve built? I do this to myself because it’s so hard to do, but I know when I’m getting close.

One other thing: I guess my original goal was to “have a puzzle published in The Times.” I see it so differently now. We constructors are serving an audience of millions who are starting their days with The Times’s puzzle, or who pounced on it at 10 p.m. Eastern the night before. They can’t wait to see it each day, to see what we’re throwing at them, and to see how fast they can finish it, to see if they can solve it in ink, to see if we can surprise or trick them. We all have the responsibility to kick it up a notch for our ever-demanding clients, with ever more amazing challenges.

Every phase of construction is exciting. Taking my time to carefully develop a theme set. Developing a cool-looking grid, the kind that looks great or tells a story or has words spilling off the sides. Filling the grid with words that sparkle. And writing clues that are new, deceptive, funny or nearly impossible. When I’m cluing, I feel like I’m standing on a pitcher’s mound, trying to throw knuckle balls past A-Rod.

I use Crossword Compiler on my PC. It does everything I want, and technical support is terrific. Also, the puzzle database on XWord Info is equally important to me in constructing.

Yikes! Being a newbie, I hadn’t realized that this was a thing until I started reading about it on Wordplay. I’ve only just begun sculpting my own word list, but my starting point is Jeff Chen’s personal list at XWord Info. Hours per week? Yeesh, I’d better get cracking.

Oh, my poor brain! I’ll go LIFO (Last In First Out) and give Sam Ezersky credit for dealing me a rare “Did Not Finish” in his Aug. 25, 2018, puzzle. “The 1 in 1-9” turned out to be WIN! I might have gotten it, if Sam hadn’t nailed me with the crossing WOMYN (“Group in feminist writing”), for which I had confidently entered HUMYN.

But my favorite word ever was Damon Gulczynski’s COLPORTEUR (“Peddler of religious literature”) on May 27, 2017. My French is pretty good, but I hadn’t heard this word before; it means “collar wearer.” Of course, I immediately went to Wikipedia to figure out what kind of sadistic jokesters the composer-lyricist Cole Porter’s parents were. But indeed, it was just a coincidence: Cole was simply a patronymic.

Robyn Weintraub wrote in this feature that there were certain political figures that she would not admit into her puzzle space. I feel the same way. Some names that come across my screen make my back stiffen. I don’t care to acknowledge them in my grid. My fingers won’t go there. I seriously regret that we’ve come to this point where political divisions are so profound.