Well, where to start? My name's John Ciolfi, I am a graduate of Fordham University in New York (Go Rams!), and I currently work for the National Hockey League as a producer with NHL.com International. I've been a fan of solving and creating word puzzles since I was a little kid, slowly working my way up from criss-crosses and word-searches into "the hard stuff", and so I by the time I attended Fordham, I was solving the Times crossword almost daily (as well as the cryptic crossword in the NY Post, until they stopped publishing that, but that's neither here nor there…).
By my senior year, I created a series of crosswords for the school newspaper, and after getting some positive reviews, I figured I'd try to send some out to the Times. They all got rejected. In hindsight, it was deserved as each puzzle was lacking in some way, but the shot to my confidence kept me from submitting any for a few years until I figured I had something worth publishing. Fast-forward to this year.
I wasn't expecting much to come out of this concept; I simply noticed that ANDES, an extremely common crossword entry, could be read as "and ES." I tried adding it to different words and phrases, but it wasn't until I came up with FOR THE WINES that I thought I had something. I wanted to make sure I had each vowel represented (and elongated) in the theme answers, so HOUSE PETES was the last one I came up with (once I found out that my puzzle was getting published after Election Day, I was more than a little concerned, especially when I found out Pete Sessions had lost, but they're still technically in office until January, plus there's also a Rep. Pete Visclosky, so I didn't have to worry about my debut puzzle being immediately outdated!).
Sam Ezersky at the Times was a big help for me on this puzzle. Rather than reject it, he asked me to try to work around some problem areas and listened to some other suggestions for theme answers (BUNNY HOPES, NIGHT CAPES, ASTRO POPES and MAJOR TOMES were all possibilities that eventually got pushed aside). I do kind of wish they had kept my clue for AORTA — "It comes from the heart" — but that's just a nitpick. In the end, pretty much the entire puzzle got retooled over 4 or 5 versions (with the exception of the SW corner — I'm really proud to be able to have two entries next to each other — ANGIOGRAM and BERNOULLI — that are making their Times debut in my Times debut, especially since both of them were there from the start).
In the end, I'm excited to finally get over the hump and get my first puzzle published in the Times! Hopefully, this is just the start! Thanks for solving!