Daily Archives: April 19, 2009

Author Interview: Eric Berlin


As promised, here is my interview with author and puzzler Eric Berlin. He’s just released The Potato Chip Puzzles, a follow-up to his first novel about puzzle-expert, Winston Breen. Before I get to the interview, I am happy to announce the winner of yesterday’s puzzle contest, posted here at Shelf Elf. The winner receives a signed copy of The Potato Chip Puzzles. Your prize will be sent to you via Eric.

THE WINNER IS… Laura Jewell! Congrats Laura!

Read on to discover why puzzles matter and learn Eric’s best puzzle memory ever.

Welcome Eric! So, why do puzzles matter?

Well, they do and they don’t. I’m a total puzzle addict, so don’t get me wrong, but I’m not about to equate crosswords and sudoku to the applied sciences. What they are, first and foremost, is fun. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, especially when I’m talking to kids.

However, secretly, I think puzzles matter a great deal. And that’s because everything is a puzzle when you really think about it. I got through my years of math by pretending all those algebra problems were puzzles. Every single day, people who couldn’t possibly care less about puzzles go to their offices… and solve puzzles. How can I treat this patient? How can I improve my company? Where am I supposed to put all these boxes? We’re all constantly faced with challenges that require fast, flexible, logical thinking. Puzzles help prepare your brain for everything else it has to deal with.

How has solving and creating puzzles changed your life?

My love of puzzles led me to discover the National Puzzlers’ League, the nation’s oldest organization of puzzle-lovin’ folks. For certain people, it takes about fifteen seconds of hanging out at an NPL convention before you look around say, “Wow, I am home. I’m going to be friends with these people for the rest of my life.” I am one of those people.

What’s your favourite type of puzzle to solve, and to create?

I love to solve “puzzle hunts,” very much like what I’m presenting this week with Winston’s Puzzle Party. Multiple, varied puzzles, each with its own answer… and then all answers tie together in some way to give you a final, winning solution. I love solving these by myself, and I love solving them with teams of friends. I travel quite a bit each year to puzzle events of just this kind.

And I like creating puzzle hunts, too. Winston’s Puzzle Party was a lot of fun to put together. I’ve created events for the passionate puzzlers at Will Shortz’s annual crossword tournament (you can even buy that one, if you’re so inclined), and I’ve created events for high school students who didn’t care all that much about puzzles but wound up having a lot of fun. I’m starting to explore doing hunts for younger kids now, so if you’re a school or library and want to do a puzzle event for your kids, contact me.

What’s your biggest tip for novice puzzlers with short attention spans?

Don’t worry if you can’t solve something to its completion. Nobody’s watching you, nobody’s judging you. Do the puzzles you enjoy, do them for as long as you want, and don’t worry about what anybody else thinks. I’ve got stacks of half-completed logic puzzles around my house, because I’m not great at logic puzzles even though I enjoy attempting them. I’d rather start afresh with a new one than sit there trying to figure out where I’ve made a mistake.

Your best puzzle memory:

Oh, there are so many. But let’s go with this one: At a puzzle event I created for my local high school, I turned the entire science wing into a sort of “wordplay maze.” I wrote a number of words on each blackboard, and solvers had to go from room to room, looking for particular words. They’d have to anagram them or performing some other feat of wordplay, which would then lead to the next word they had to find.

It was chaos. We had over a hundred kids participating in the event, and at one point I think they were all working simultaneously on this one puzzle. Kids were running around like crazy trying to find the right words. Time and again, I watched kids trying to find a particular word look right at the word they needed and go zooming past it, because they were moving too fast to think properly.

In the middle of all this insanity, there was a team of three girls. They had pulled a number of chairs together and were sitting quietly. They had gone from room to room, writing down the words on each blackboard. That done, they were able to sit calmly while everybody else was running around like a bunch of lunatics. They solved the puzzle in about five minutes—most teams took half an hour or more. I was proud of them like they were my own kids.

Thanks for the interview Eric! Good to know that half-finished puzzles are allowed after all!