Byline: Peter Elson
ONE of Liverpool's most intriguing aspects is its durability and huge success as a backdrop for a ship-load of what are called "saga novels".
These are dramatic romances, smothered in a great dollop of nostalgia, with young heroines overcoming numerous obstacles, social and domestic, amidst the great northern seaport.
Of the several names that spring to mind, Maureen Lee is one of the best known and has most successfully tapped into her Liverpool home.
"Liverpool is a remarkable place with remarkable people with a huge history, that now includes the Beatles and Cavern," says Maureen, 64, who comes from Bootle, but now lives in Colchester, Essex.
"The city occupies a huge chunk of memory for people who come from everywhere. That's why news about possibly changing Penny Lane went all over the world.
"Not every city had a war like Liverpool. You can't have a novel about Liverpool that starts before the war and misses it out. You've got to include it. Somewhere like Bootle, where I grew up, was one of the most heavily-bombed places in the country for its size.
"Liverpool has a huge social range and the history of the shipping and slavery, in all a very rich and eventful history. It's a young history, but coming to prominence a couple of hundred years ago is enough. I wouldn't want to write about anything earlier than about 1800.
"I come back about twice a year and stay with friends. I know the city's suffered some dreadful redevelopment, but there is still a community spirit in Liver pool.
"I had a friend in Old Roan (who has since died), but when I stayed there people were constantly dropping by in a way I've never experienced else where."
Born in 1942, during the war, she feels as if she has practically experienced it after so much research, with volumes of correspondence and books on the subject.
"I've only lived in Liverpool, London and Colchester. Liverpool is easy to write about. The only other place I've felt this about is New York. We loved it so much 18 months ago that we went again recently
"So I set half of my next book, The Leaving of Liverpool, in New York, I couldn't resist it. The story starts in 1925 and it finishes at the end of the war, covering the De pression.
"The working class areas feel similar to those in Liverpool and my characters are of Irish Catholic extraction.
"English was about the only subject I was good at school, writing essays and so on. I wanted to go on stage and joined dramatic societies in Liverpool and went to Crane Hall for singing lessons. Unfortunately I got rid of my accent which I regret now that I haven't got a Liverpool accent."
When Maureen was about 18 she started writing short stories. One of her first was published in Storyteller, a Birkenhead magazine for which she received pounds 5, around 1960. She recalls: "It was quite something for me back then."
Ambitions to go on stage were regarded with suspicion by her parents and unfortunately her father died in 1955, long before her success.
"They thought I was quite mad and my mother was rather ashamed. They wanted me to do conventional things, so I became a shorthand typist," says Maureen.
"My mother died in 1982 just before I had a paperback novel called Lila published. I don't know if she would have liked it because she was very embarrassed about sex.
"I'd had some short stories published and she wasn't really keen, as she thought they were a bit too racy. She probably would have been pleased about my success, but slightly ashamed."
Maureen expected to become just another housewife, married to a scientific instrument maker, with three sons (all now in their thirties). She had always belonged to writing societies, which she found very supportive.
"I am sometimes astonished at being so successful. I never anticipated that. I've just had the proof copies of The Leaving of Liverpool and when I read on the back about the things I've done I can't believe it's me that I'm reading about."
She writes a novel every nine months and still loves the creative process. Her ideas "come from nowhere" or are inspired by some small detail that she happens across while reading. Her network of Liverpool friends send her any books they believe might be useful.
"I do a lot of research. Somebody sent me a book of Liverpool old memories which mentioned a person called a 'pawn shop runner', who was a character who pawned things for people who were too ashamed to be seen in a pawn shop.
"I felt I must write about this and it was going to be called The Pawn Shop Runner, but my publishers thought it might be suggestive of the wrong kind of porn, as opposed to pawn.
"You get into the flow writing about the past. People weren't so forward or up-front before the 1960s, especially 'good Catholic girls.'
"We didn't pick each other up at dances. I've written one book in 1918, but generally I write from the 1930s to the 1950s, although I have gone up to 2001.
"I'm currently writing a novel called Mother of Pearl, talking about what it's like to be a prisoner of war and I do the research as I go along, as story-wise I don't know where I'm going."
Only one of her sons reads her books. She says: "I get quite annoyed as my husband Richard doesn't read them. If he wrote about science fiction, which I hate, I'd still plough through them.
"Richard is proud of my achievements and read the first, Stepping Stones, but he's not into saga novels. I am automatically writing for a female readership."
She cites Charles Dickens among her literary heroes, but is too busy writing to read novels. She consciously avoids the other Liverpool writers so as not to be accused of plagiarism.
Her great passion after writing is politics. She says: "I used to belong to the Labour Party, but I returned my card cut in two to Tony Blair when they started bombing Baghdad. I was out leafleting last Saturday saying 'Hands off the Lebanon'.
"I'm totally swallowed up by politics. I used to be an activist, but now avidly read the papers and listen to the news. There must be good people out there but it's very, very depressing what is going on."
Maureen's next novel is to be set in 1914 at the beginning of the First World War and she is about to start research, saying she cannot "wait to get stuck in".
She writes six days a week in a shed at the bottom of the garden, producing about 1,500 words a day on her computer word-processor, as she cannot read her own writing.
She begins work about midday and finishes at 7pm, with plenty of coffee breaks.
Has success changed her lifestyle?
"We've been very unselfish in our indulgences. We've bought a flat for our youngest son in London and a house for our middle son in Colchester, all for cash.
"Our eldest son is in the pop music business and is very, very rich, so he doesn't need our help. We went to Paris for five days and New York twice, but we're not major splurgers. We've got double-glazing and a conservatory."
A country estate is something she'd hate, echoing the High Society song, and she's toyed with moving back to Liverpool.
"I know it has altered. Bold Street epitomises an area that's most changed since my time. There used to be these incredibly exclusive women's clothes shops that are now all gone," says Maureen.
It's no longer the Bond Street of the North' that's now part of the "dream Liverpool" that these novels so cleverly exploit.
Real places used to tell a tale
LOCATION counts in a saga novel and Maureen Lee has drawn heavily on her Liverpool home. Her old address of No 2 Chaucer Street, Bootle, became home for her heroine Lizzie O'Brien, in Stepping Stones (1994), and the character moved to 105 Queens Gate, London, the non-existent next door bed-sit to where Maureen lived when first married.
In Lights Out Liverpool (1995), the first of a wartime trilogy commissioned by Orion Books, Maureen put a family of characters in Pearl Street, Bootle, the fictitious name of the street where her grandparents lived. She carried the setting on through Put Out the Fires and Through the Storm (1997).
The House By Princes Park (2002) was an upmarket move for a book originally to be called The Pawn Shop Runner.
Maureen Lee's latest book' Maureen Lee, who writes sagas set in Liverpool's past' Children at play, skipping and tightly packed terraced homes in Bootle. It is 50s and 60s Merseyside which is a major part in Maureen Lee's saga novels, giving the books their unique feel…