Literature: Writing Stories with Epic History; Liverpool Saga Novels Are a Literary Phenomenon. in the Last of His Literary Life Series, Peter Elson Talks to One of the Leading Practitioners

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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. …