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
“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.
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
“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
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
“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.
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,”
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.
writes excellent dialogue. Excellent, too, is
his knowledge of Spain, where he spent a year
as a freelancer.
of Matt Helm and other series heroes will like
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
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
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,”
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
“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