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Puzzle writer finds a niche with homegrown crosswords

COURIER readers are a passionate bunch. When a story strikes a chord—the doomed water company takeover, moving the Renwick House to make way for Pomona College’s new museum, or most recently the failed police station bond measure—our readers don’t hold back: they let us know how they feel.

But passions aren’t reserved solely for big money, long-term, high-impact topics. A couple of weeks ago, the COURIER had to withhold one of our most popular features, the crossword puzzle, for two consecutive issues. And you’d have thought we’d somehow cut the city’s air conditioning, or shut off its water.

Early Monday morning, three subscribers called to ask for the answer grid. After the second week it went missing from the COURIER, one gentleman left an exasperated voicemail to say he was prepared to cancel his subscription. 

“It’s the strangest phenomenon,” said COURIER puzzle writer Myles Mellor. “On a national level, I had that happen with a major paper and hundreds of people called me, hundreds of people called the paper, and I got like 200 emails over a weekend. I called the editor on the Monday after and said, ‘You’d think people might be more interested in healthcare, and all the articles you publish, but no, the real thing is if they get their crossword puzzle!’”

The ebullient Mr. Mellor, 67, is one of the world’s most successful puzzle writers. He’s also a genuine innovator in the specialized world of puzzle creation, having pioneered individualized theme puzzles for virtually any audience.

The COURIER was among the first to run his puzzles a decade ago. He’s now syndicated in about 100 newspapers and is published regularly in some 100 magazines. He’s written puzzles for more than 600 magazines and published 45 puzzle books. He’s also the main contributor in the top crossword app on Google Play. 

His story is a classic all-American (via Britain) pull yourself up by your wits and ingenuity tale, complete with a heart-wrenching genesis and a kindly, selfless mentor.

Mr. Mellor was born in Oxford, England. He immigrated to the US in 1984, settling in Los Angeles.

“I came for the weather,” he said with a laugh. “I was tired of the cold in England.” He now lives in Carlsbad, California. He’s been married to his second wife, Debbie, for 13 years. They each have two grown children from their respective previous marriages.

Mr. Mellor’s dad was a puzzle-loving school headmaster. Father and son bonded over the brain-teasing test of solving puzzles from English newspapers.

Sixteen years after Mr. Mellor immigrated to the US, the family suffered one of the most painful of losses when his mother died in 2000.

“My dad was really lonely and depressed, and I was over here so there was not a lot I could do,” Mr. Mellor recalled. “But I thought I had to cheer him up somehow, and I knew he really loved crossword puzzles.”

So, with a piece of paper and a black felt tip pen he made some rough drawings, colored in some black squares and created his first puzzles.

“I sent them over to him and he just loved them,” Mr. Mellor said. “He was so appreciative that I would sit down and do that for him. And he was funny; he would write back and say, ‘I loved the puzzle, but you made a spelling mistake!’ like a true solver!”

Encouraged, he kept at it. “I felt I’d done something for him to help him through the grief of my mom dying,” he said. “They were together for 50 years, and never went anywhere without each other.”

After solving several of the increasingly enjoyable puzzles, his dad had a suggestion. “He said, ‘You know, some of these are pretty good. Why don’t you try to publish them?’ And that is how this all started. Because after that I thought, ‘Let me try this out, it can’t do any harm.’”

He sent out a few puzzles to about 100 syndicates, newspapers and magazines. “And just absolutely nothing happened for six months,” he said. “My wife was really funny, she said ‘Myles, don’t quit your day job.’”

But the tide was about to turn in a most fortuitous way.

One morning, while walking to work in Glendale, he passed a newspaper rack selling the Orange County Register and thought he’d take a look at the puzzle section.

“And I saw these little puzzles that weren’t crossword puzzles,” Mr. Mellor said. “They were kind of word searches, and all these little tiny puzzles.” Beneath them was an email address for David Hoyt.

“So I thought, ‘He got published, maybe I should just write to him and get some tips,’”?Mr. Mellor recalled, “because I need something. This is going nowhere.”

Unbeknownst to him, Mr. Hoyt was one of the top inventors of new types of puzzles in the world. He created the popular “Jumble” puzzles and is now involved in creating word game apps. “He’s just a genius,” Mr. Mellor said. “He probably has 40 or 50 puzzle trademarks.”

Mr. Hoyt asked what Mr. Mellor had in mind. He told him about a new idea he had to create entire crossword puzzles based on specific themes.

“Let’s say you have a travel magazine, you’ve got to write a crossword about travel, because that’s what they’re interested in,” Mr. Mellor said. “And [Mr. Hoyt] said, ‘You know Myles, this is not a bad idea.’”

Mr. Mellor was still creating his puzzles free hand, with a felt tip pen. Mr. Hoyt guided him toward a computer software-based platform, made some other suggestions and asked him to call him back in a couple of months with a progress report.

“So I did,” Mr. Mellor said. “I did everything he said. Then I finally wrote emails to some editors and publishers, and one person replied and said ‘I’d like to see one of these.’” That spark came from 9-1-1 Magazine, a niche publication for emergency responders, which published Mr. Mellor’s first themed crossword in 2002.

By the end of that year Mr. Mellor had published about 50 crosswords, and had made a respectable amount of money. The next year his income doubled, and the next year it doubled again. By 2006 he was making as much writing crosswords as he was in his day job as the CEO of a company that sold and serviced laser printers and cartridges.

Most crossword writers end up in a day job, making puzzles in their spare time for a little money. “Which is fine, but I didn’t want to do that,” Mr. Mellor said. “I went the other way because I found other ways of doing it.”

Indeed he has. He quit his day job a decade ago, and his puzzle business continues to grow today.

“When I first talked to Myles I was like, ‘This guy is awesome, he is serious about this,’” said Mr. Hoyt. “I was thrilled to help him. He has worked his butt off to get where he is. He truly has. It’s very difficult to become a puzzle maker today, but Myles has truly put in the time and effort. His puzzles are getting better and better and better. He has become successful through hard work, and I could not be happier for him.”

Mr. Mellor’s infectious laugh and good natured manner have no doubt helped him along on his journey from upstart to kingpin.

“I get emails from people all the time, every day, wanting my advice and to do what I do or to submit puzzle ideas,” Mr. Hoyt said. “But Myles was so nice and patient and polite. Once I talked to him, I was just like, ‘I can’t believe this person has any natural enemy in the whole world.’ He’s that nice of a guy.”

With his career continuing to blossom, and with it his profile, I had to ask: are there crossword puzzle groupies?

“No. Never!” Mr. Mellor said with a genial laugh. “You know, it’s very funny you should ask that. Puzzle writers, they’re kind of like naughty children: they’re best seen and not heard. They may be seen very fleetingly on the top of the crossword puzzle, and then people move on.”

He’s currently at work on a new series of books. “I’ve written thousands of puzzles by now, so I’m going to make 20 or 30 books of my own, and I’m going to start promoting those.” 

“I’m sure a lot of people know who I am, fans, but they don’t come up to me in the street,” he said. “They don’t know who I am. I’m not on CNN. Ha!”

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com