Katie Stewart ’23 (She/Her), News Co-Editor
Victor “Vic” Fleming ‘73 is an Arkansas traffic court judge and the author of several books on legal humor. For students at Davidson, however, he is probably best known as the man behind the Davidsonian’s crossword puzzles. I sat down with him to learn more about his life, his career, and his crosswords. An excerpt of the interview is below, and the entirety of the interview (including more details about his career, the crossword puzzle he co-wrote with Bill Clinton, and the documentary his original song is featured in) is published on the Davidsonian’s website.
Have you always loved crosswords? When did you first get into them?
My mother solved crossword puzzles. And I remember seeing them in school periodicals that came out maybe on a national basis, but that were available in elementary school. And I was always fascinated by grids that had blanks that needed to be filled in. By the time I was in eighth or ninth grade, my mother was encouraging me to solve crossword puzzles, [and I] solved them sporadically through high school. I remember solving one in [the] Charlotte Observer most days when I was here [at] Davidson [where] I was in a position to see a paper every day. So yeah, it’s been a long time. I’ve enjoyed solving them for a long time. And, you know, I always wondered about the bylines on the New York Times puzzles [and thought] that if they can do this I ought to be able to do it, and so I had this goal at some point in life to learn how to make them.
What ultimately spurred you to go from a consumer to a creator of crosswords?
There were two things that happened that jump into my consciousness. Number one, I read an article in Delta Airlines magazine about a guy named Merl Reagle. Merl [was] making the Sunday puzzle for the San Francisco Examiner, and it was syndicated to about 25 or 30 papers around the country. He was making a living making crossword puzzles, and there was this biographical feature on him. And within a week or two [of] my reading that article and formulating a dozen questions or so in my head, Will Shortz [the New York Times crossword puzzle editor] was interviewed on 60 Minutes. So those two things happen back to back, [and] I somehow found Merl’s email address — or maybe I sent him a hardcopy letter, maybe I found that snail mail. But I communicated with him, and I got a reply from him that was very encouraging. And so I took that as a sign. Also, I had become a judge a few years earlier in 1997. Before that I was [a] self employed, practicing lawyer. So as a self-employed person [I] was working 60-80 hours a week. [When I] became a judge [I was] suddenly a government employee and could actually get the job done in 35 hours or so. So that left 40 hours to fill with spare time. One of the things I wanted to do was learn how to play the guitar. So I did that. And then I wanted to pursue crossword puzzles at a different level. And I did that.
What’s your process when constructing a crossword? And how long does it take you?
Well, making a crossword puzzle is a four-step process. One is theme development, two is grid construction, three is filling the grid, and four is writing the clues. Now, most puzzles have themes, but even puzzles that don’t have themes are almost always begun with what we call seed entries. For regular themes, it’s an idea that can have repetition in it. So you have three, four, five, sometimes six theme answers that have something in common. And for purposes of doing a New York Times quality puzzle, I like to have 300 to 400% of what I need. So if I need four answers, I like to research it until I find twenty that would work. Then I know I’m picking out the best four. Theme development for a New York Times puzzle can take two or three hours. Or it can take 30 minutes based on the quality of an idea that you might have from looking at a billboard or dream you had last night or a phrase or something out of a novel that you might be reading. You take your theme answers that you’re going to use, put them into a blank grid, and then in the blank grid, you put in black squares. There are rules that govern that: basically 16% of the of the grid can be covered with black squares. And you place those black squares according to what you’re doing [with the puzzle] down the road. In a way, like life, each step that you take determines what’s available to you afterwards. Once that grid is created, you then want to fill up the grid. You want to use stuff that’s lively [and] friendly in the language accessible to the consumer. And the very last thing is writing the clues. We all have the same database, those of us who make puzzles, where we can look up virtually every clue that’s ever been used for any word that’s ever been in a crossword puzzle. So I double check; I try to write the clues off the top of my head.
You do seem to have a very busy life. Do you have any advice for students on how to juggle different commitments and prioritize?
I think the one thing that I would say is—well, you’re familiar with Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken”? “The Road Not Taken” is often read at graduation events in praise of someone who is taking a less conventional choice in life. And so it’s very often interpreted, by speakers as well as consumers […] that it’s okay to take that less traveled road. And maybe someday you come back to the more traveled road. But I think the more important aspect of that poem—and this is my advice—is that there are two roads there. If there are two, there [has] to be more than two. And a lot of people, whether they want to or not, wind up doing two or more things in order to live their lives. One may be the primary thing they do [to] mak[e] a living, one may be the primary thing that they do [to] hav[e] fun, and the other may be getting married or having children and whatnot. But recognize early on [that] if you will be traveling more than one road, you don’t have to rule something out just because you’re doing something else.