By Ginger Holt Porter
Summer, 1988. Deep in the hill country of Texas, a haggard man stares intently at his computer as the clock nears the stroke of midnight. His head wreathed in cigarette smoke, a trusty Doberman at his feet, the strategist concocts elaborate plans of intrigue and treachery.

April, 1991. A professor leans back in his University of Memphis office, recounting the story of how he first became interested in writing suspense and adventure novels.

“I was a World War II brat. I grew up during the war, and liked to write about it,” said John Lee, professor of journalism. “I remember writing and illustrating a four-color comic book during the war where all the characters ran around yelling, ‘AIEEEE!’ and ‘BANZAI!’ I did a lot of gory stuff when I was a kid.”

While Lee’s latest novels are not as violent as his first crude literary attempts, his fascination with World War II is still evident. Released last year, Stalag Texas recounts the exploits of escaped Nazi prisoners of war who hope to destroy the world’s first atomic bomb at a hidden laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

"Mr. Lee is fine at page-turning suspense, at authentic local color, and in getting you genuinely involved with his characters."

- New York Times

Another recent release is Lee’s Modern Mass Media, co-written with two other professors, which is the textbook for U of M’s “Survey of Mass Communication” course, as well as for journalism classes in other colleges and universities.

“It’s some of the smoothest, gentlest writing you’ll ever find in a textbook,” wrote critic Douglas P. Starr.

Lee considers those words among the best compliments that could be received.

“Most textbooks aren’t much fun to read, and if there is one that students don’t seem to mind reading, professors tend to remember it,” he said. Feature Writing for Newspapers and Magazines, which was co-written by Lee, is already being used at more than 150 schools.

While Lee has made a career out of writing and teaching, his interests span the spectrum. He says he was once a “triple-threat man,” since he has written articles for dozens of magazines, has published photographs in newspapers, books, and more than 100 magazines, and has sketched editorial cartoons and caricatures. Lee also enjoys oil painting.

“I knew if I kept doing all three, I would never be very good at any of them. So I decided to pick one and concentrate on it. I chose writing. Then, of course, I got into teaching because it allows more time for writing,” Lee said.

A nominee for the 1990 Distinguished Teaching Award (he won it in 1992) and winner of the Dean’s Creative Achievement Award, Lee held a variety of media positions before embarking on a career in academia. He worked for several major newspapers, for an industrial public relations firm and traveled abroad as a free-lance writer.

After earning a master’s degree from West Virginia University, Lee finished the course work for a doctorate at the University of Missouri, then stopped. “I made straight As right up to the dissertation, and had done all my dissertation research, but then I signed a huge two-book contract with Doubleday and never got back to it,” he said. Teaching first at American University in Washington D.C., he found both an academic career he enjoyed and the setting for another novel.

Although Lee has prospered in his writing career, he still continues to teach journalism courses. “I took a few years off to write fulltime, but my brain turned to mush,” he said. “I had to get back to teaching. I really missed it—and my vocabulary was suffering. Contact with students keeps your language up to date.”

Lee says he enjoys the contact with students and feels that teaching is a fun job. “It pleases me when one of my students does well. I’ve taught people like Tom Shales, Pulitzer-prize winning TV critic for the Washington Post, Rona Cherry, executive editor of Glamour magazine, and Fran Carpentier, a senior editor at Parade magazine,” Lee said.

Just as the professor takes pride in his students, the wordsmith values his handiwork. The citations and framed book jackets adorning Lee’s office walls testify to his years of hard work.

Years ago, Lee’s innovative ideas propelled him through a thriving free-lance career. While the professor has published articles in many traditional publications, his works have also appeared in surprising places.

...Lee writes excellent dialogue. Excellent, too, is his knowledge of Spain, where he spent a year as a freelancer.

...Fans of Matt Helm and other series heroes will like this one.

- Tucson Daily Citizen

“One of my articles once shared the cover of Action for Men with “Mabel, the Makeout Motorcycle Queen,” said Lee. “I soon learned to use a pseudonym, James Lake, when I wrote for men’s magazines.”

Lee lives in a country house in Texas during the summers with five cultured Doberman pinschers named for such authors as Chaucer and Tolstoy—Lee calls the dogs his “literary litter.” Lee and his dogs have commuted between Memphis and Texas since 1984, when his attempt to sell the country place and choose a permanent Memphis home coincided with the Texas oil bust and a long sag in the state’s real estate market.

“The market’s beginning to look up.” Lee reported, “but I may just keep the Texas house. It’s quiet and a great place to do one’s writing.”

Lee has published 12 books. Movie options have been purchased for two of Lee’s books, The Ninth Man and Caught in the Act. While the professor was being courted for the first Ninth Man option, producers invited him to lunch at Universal Studios in Hollywood.

“Steven Spielberg came over to the table to say ‘Hello,” and he told me he’d read my book and that it was going to be the Jaws of World War II. I always wished I had that in writing,” Lee said.


Lee’s other books include such novels as The Thirteenth Hour, Lago, Assignation in Algeria, and his latest, Stalag Texas. Lee also has six non-fiction books to his credit.

In spite of numerous literary successes, the author has received his share of rejection slips. Lee admits that his reputation would have suffered had any of his first three books been published.

“It took three books for me to learn the craft,” he said. “Most people who had written three whole books without selling one would have given up. I just got stubborn and kept writing until I finally wrote something someone would have to publish.”

The research involved in writing a book someone has to publish is a tedious process, sometimes taking Lee more than a year to complete. His books are known for their historical accuracy, so he spends months scrutinizing history books and personal accounts before he types the first word on any manuscript. Following the research, the actual writing can take another six months to a year.

Lee’s thorough approach yields quality novels and, consequently, a comfortable lifestyle. He says The Ninth Man, his “breakthrough book,” changed his life. “The Ninth Man made it possible for me to choose where I wanted to go and where I wanted to live,” said Lee.

Strikingly good ... Action is not only non-stop but believable, the background is fine, and Mr. Lee has a good, bold, lightsome style. Let's hope for more.

- San Franscisco Examiner & Chronicle

And where he wants to live is Memphis, with his summers in Texas. The professor maintains that his life is right on track—he is writing and teaching at a school he likes.

“In 1983, when I was considering the University of Memphis (then known as Memphis State University), I flew down to look at the city and I fell in love with it,” Lee said. “There was a blizzard in progress, but the easy friendliness of the faculty and the attractiveness of the city got to me.

"Memphis is handsome—it has nice trees, good food, and good people. I could see that once the blizzard of ’83 passed, it was probably even fairly warm.”