More Merseyside than Mersea Road!

She's sold about 1.5 million books and is the 65th most borrowed author at our libraries. Mind you, Maureen Lee's own life is pretty interesting itself, as Steven Russell discoversFORGIVE the absolutely dreadful pun but there's a corner of Essex that's much more Merseyside than Mersea.

Steven Russell

She's sold about 1.5 million books and is the 65th most borrowed author at our libraries. Mind you, Maureen Lee's own life is pretty interesting itself, as Steven Russell discovers

FORGIVE the absolutely dreadful pun but there's a corner of Essex that's much more Merseyside than Mersea.

Maureen Lee has lived in the county for more than 40 years - the past 19 or so in Colchester, appropriately enough not far from Mersea Road - but in her heart she's very much an Irish Catholic girl from Bootle.

Her love of Liverpool and its people fuelled a writing career that exploded in middle age. Although she'd begun to write at the same time as she got married, more than 45 years ago, it wasn't until 1990 that she got down to it full-time - her three sons having left home by that stage.

Over the years Maureen had had about 150 short stories published in magazines around the world. In 1981 she even had a full-length musical play, When Adam Delved and Eve Span, produced at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester; and then the following year a novel was published in America. But her big break came in 1994.

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Orion published Stepping Stones and commissioned her to write a trilogy set in “my city” during the war. She's now just had her 16th saga published in about 14 years; and number 17 is finished and waiting. For good measure there's another couple of novels written under the pen name of Kath Kincaid, too.

The trademarks of Maureen's fiction were apparent from the off: strong female characters, family turmoil, dreadful challenges to overcome, humour amidst adversity, a vibrant city and a tight sense of community, and essentially happy endings.

In Stepping Stones, teenager Lizzie is made pregnant by her father and, after an abortion, kills him. Eventually, with a failed marriage behind her, she finds fame, fortune and friendship in Hollywood - but not happiness. She returns to her roots and, after yet more heartbreak, is forced to confront her past to find the peace of mind that has eluded her.

The latest saga is Mother of Pearl. Teenager Amy Curran marries love-of-her-life Barney Patterson on the eve of war, but when he returns to Liverpool after VE Day both of them have changed. The relationship becomes so twisted that Amy murders the husband she once cherished and she spends 20 years in prison for her crime.

Their daughter, Pearl, was just five years old when her mother was sent down. They haven't seen each other in two decades. Then, in 1971, her mother is released . . .

The EADT last spoke to Maureen Lee in the late summer of 1999. Seven or eight months later, Dancing in the Dark was named Romantic Novel of the Year. The story followed the lives of two women three generations apart, with a lost lover and a secret child along the way. Its author was “so overwhelmingly astonished when the winner was announced at a terribly posh lunch at the Savoy Hotel in London that I lost my voice, couldn't remember the names of people I wanted to thank, and made a complete fool of myself!”

Did the accolade change things?

“No. It was really just a nice boost. It just made me feel a bit conceited. Well, not conceited; that's not the word . . . Good about myself.”

Only last month Maureen was at the Royal Garden Hotel, Kensington, for this year's award final. She didn't win, but was very happy to have made the shortlist of six for her tale The Leaving of Liverpool.

In 1990, once her youngest son had left for university, she concentrated hard on writing in a room made available to her by Colchester Labour Party, determined to succeed. When those offices were sold, she decamped to an upstairs room at an estate agents. Then, when that block changed hands, brought her writing back home about five or six years ago.

Her study is now a l0ft by 6ft shed at the bottom of the garden that she calls her favourite place in the world. “I don't have it terribly - how can I put it? - organised. I just go in and sit there and write. I don't care much … It's comfortable, but I've just got a computer down there and an exercise bike, which I ride for 15 minutes a day.”

Maureen's not one to make an early start on her day's writing, preferring instead to get the household chores done before she sits down at her screen. “I feel better if I know everything's been done.”

She'll start at about midday, will pop back to the house to make drinks, and will have an hour's break at about 4pm for her tea. Then it's back to the current story until the tinkling strains of EastEnders signals the end of her working day.

A date with Albert Square has become a habit. “I don't like it terribly. I wish I could write some of the plots - they seem so silly at times - but I do find I'm committed, in a way.” It is, she concedes, hard to give up on the characters once you've got to know them and their predicaments.

Writing is something she simply adores, “the way a painter would love art or an actor would love acting. I can't imagine never doing it”. She's spoken in the past about the thrill of embarking on a new story and wondering where it will lead her. Then there's the bittersweet moment: the exhilaration of typing The End, mixed with the sadness of saying goodbye to characters who have almost become friends over the previous nine months.

The modest author baulks at suggestions that penning her autobiography would be a fruitful future project, but there's no doubt it would prove an interesting' read.

Maureen was born during the war into a working-class family in Bootle, Liverpool. Home was an end-of-terrace house near the docks. She remembers being poor but not poverty-stricken. Children played in roads that were largely free of traffic, there were street parties, dogs mooched about without leads, and everyone seemed to know everyone else.

She went to an all-girls' convent school, but would have preferred the more lively nature of a mixed comprehensive. Nevertheless, it was wonderful to be young in Liverpool in the 1950s. It was an age of dance halls, the Philharmonic Hall, and theatres - including the Playhouse, where you could buy a ticket for 9d.

One of the highlights was attending the opening night of a rather seedy basement club in Mathew Street on Wednesday, January 16, 1957, when she was 15. In a few years, thanks to a band called The Beatles, The Cavern Club would take on legendary status.

As a teenager she loved the theatre, was in a dramatic society, and dreamed of becoming an actress upon leaving school at 15. But Mum put her foot down. Going on the stage was “as bad as selling your body on the streets”. Maureen settled instead for secretarial college and then a job at the English Electric company. She also signed up for night school and secured two A-levels, the first in English literature,

Maureen wasn't ready to settle for a predictable life, however, and at the age of 16 hitchhiked to Europe with friend Margaret after temping in London to fund their adventure.

They secured a lift from London to Dover on the back of a lorry, sitting on beer crates, and snoozing on the side of the road in Calais on a grassy bank because they hadn't found a hotel. They couldn't get jobs in Paris, so hitched to Geneva and found work in the United Nations as secretaries.

The trip represented another difference of opinion between mother and daughter. Maureen's mum was terribly ashamed when she went to Europe, warning “If you leave this house, you're not coming back!” But they received fantastic wages at the UN - about four times as much as at English Electric. “When I wrote and told her, she suddenly forgave me and went around telling everybody 'Our Maureen's working at the United Nations in Geneva.'”

Mum, like many other folk of the period, was the kind of person who fretted about what the neighbours thought.

When the family moved to slightly posher Kirby, mum initially hung the curtains round the wrong way, so the neighbours saw the pattern, rather than the less attractive back. And when Maureen had children of her own, and took the boys on visits to Liverpool, her mother wouldn't let her hang their off-white nappies on the line in case anyone saw them.

The author has sometimes drawn on those kinds of differences as inspiration for her fiction. Although they sometimes didn't see eye to eye, Maureen loved her mum very much. She's not sad her mother never knew of her literary success, however, “because I know she would never have approved of my books”.

Sadly, a gulf also developed with her brother. They got on well as children, but grew apart significantly. They also had a major, and lasting, falling out when their mother was dying. Maureen says she left her family at home and lived in her mum's Liverpool flat when she went into hospital, to be close at hand, but says her brother never went near - despite mum thinking the world of him.

“We've never spoken since. I really don't know if he's alive or dead,” she says.

Happily, Maureen's own domestic arrangements are far happier. She met husband Richard at a dance, they clicked instantly, and got engaged a fortnight later. She's not usually given to impetuosity, but knew deep down he was The One.

Richard was, though, in the throes of a divorce and the couple couldn't marry for a while. Keen that Maureen should leave her strict home environment, they moved to London in the 1960s and initially lived together - though, of course, they made sure mum never knew Richard had been married before.

The Lees moved to Essex in 1965, with Richard working at the university in a technical post. The family spent two or three years in Wivenhoe, 18 in Thorpe-le-Soken, and have been in Colchester for a couple of decades or so.

Oldest son David is 43 and a DJ from Crouch End, London. He's just spent the weekend working in St Petersburg. Paul, 40, works for Nacro, the crime reduction charity, and Patrick, 35, “does articles and things on the internet”.

Maureen thinks her sometimes rigid upbringing is “why we've always been very easy-going with our sons; more or less let them go their own way”.

Her own goal is to simply keep on enjoying her writing. She plays down her achievements - “I'm amazed I've managed to write 17 sagas!” - but they are commendable. about 120,000 copies of the paperback version of The Leaving of Liverpool have been sold since Christmas alone.

The novel she's just finished is set in 2006, but a great number of her tales are set during the war or just after. There's a good reason.

“The bombing was so heavy and concentrated. The place I lived, Bootle, was one of the most heavily bombed areas in the whole country for its size. Something like 90% of the houses were damaged, in some way, and an awful lot of people killed. You can't really write a saga about Liverpool, going back, and ignore the war.

“Sometimes I'd start a novel (set) after the war - in a way to avoid it, because I feel I'm getting a bit boring on the war,” she laughs. “There is a limit to how many times you can describe the bombing, and I don't feel I want to do it again! I do feel I've exhausted it, and I must start avoiding it from now on!”

Mother of Pearl is published by Orion at £12.99. ISBN 978-0752847559

Mini-chapters

MAUREEN Lee was for years a member of the Labour Party. Not any more. “I tendered my resignation the day they bombed Iraq,” she says. “Totally opposed to the war, and I went on virtually all the anti-war marches.”

She was a party member for almost 30 years, and a committed one at that. “I went round delivering leaflets and was on committees and all the rest of it. It was a big part of my life. But I didn't go along with that war; and I still can't, and I think it's awful. I really hope one day I can join again.”

She's only ever had a tiny number of letters pointing out factual errors in her books: to say she'd called a cinema by the wrong name; that a character in Stepping Stones should have been addressed as Lady Molyneux, not Lady Elizabeth; and that she'd mentioned the game of Scrabble in Queen of the Mersey years before it had been invented!

The title she chose for Liverpool on Fire was later changed to Put Out The Fires - “a title that I deeply dislike as it sounds like an instruction manual for firemen!”

(Lolita Dicks Syndication Ltd)

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