Liz Locke has a lifelong love affair with the 1960s. She recalls growing up with 3WS, the local oldies station out of Pittsburgh, playing in her dad’s car. “House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals and “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas and the Papas were part of the soundtrack of her childhood. During summer breaks, she camped in front of the family’s bulky, black-box TV watching reruns of “Gilligan’s Island,” “The Brady Bunch” and “I Dream of Jeannie” for hours until the TV was hot to the touch. She was enamored with the shows’ vibrant and striking colors and the set designs and costumes. She noticed how at odds the ’60s aesthetic was with the desaturated grunge of the ’90s.
After years of loving the fashion, music and movies, she stumbled into the now-closed Taschen bookstore in Amsterdam while traveling with her husband during the summer of 2013. The photography book “Poolside With Slim Aarons” immediately caught her eye. “Poolside” chronicles the lives, romances and parties of jet-setters, groups of untouchably affluent people who traveled the world constantly. She was mesmerized by the striking photos and wanted to explore a piece of the carefree socialites’ world herself. She left Amsterdam determined to learn everything she could about the jet-setters. The rest, as she says, is history.
“I just became obsessed,” says Locke, the journals circulation and customer service coordinator at UT Press. “So here we are 10 years later.”
“Poolside” and her preexisting passions led her to write her debut novel, “Follow the Sun.” The novel, published June 6, follows a socialite and aspiring singer as she chases her dreams and falls in love with a Life magazine photographer. Locke points to singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell as the primary inspiration for the main character, Caroline Kimball, but says she’s a bit of an amalgamation of many of the famed women of the era.
“(The novel asks) what was the music scene like for women in the mid-’60s?” Locke says. “And how was that a jumping off point to careers like Joni’s or Carole King?”
While her novel is a first foray into fiction writing, Locke says she has always been a storyteller. She grew up devouring books. Locke’s home office is overflowing with reading material and decorated with framed original covers from some of her favorite books, such as “The Baby-Sitters Club.” As an undergraduate, she studied interior design before pivoting to set design to revisit her passion for old films and shows.
“In a way, the work that I did in the design world, a lot of that was storytelling,” Locke says. “It just wasn’t the method that I wanted to do long term. When I discovered fiction writing, that was it.”
“Follow the Sun” is a passion project. Locke says she spent a decade tinkering with it, constantly researching and rearranging her outline. While she molded the story, she also wrote another novel that never sold, despite years of effort. After leaving her first agent, she was able to find more opportunities to get feedback from other writers, which she says propelled her novel forward. Eventually, after a few more setbacks and a new agent, Random House Canada agreed to publish it.
“It was definitely a long road,” Locke says. “But I think that makes it that much sweeter. These 10 years have given me a chance to build my audience.”
During those 10 years, she found a playful escape from the arduous journey of authorship through a blog titled Cinema Sips. Here, Locke writes fun essay-style reviews on classic films while mixing cocktails and sharing recipes. The blog kept her motivated while helping her flex her writing and editing muscles.
“It really is my happy place,” Locke says. “I’ve met so many fantastic people through (the blog). The success that I’ve had so far with ‘Follow the Sun’ never would have happened if I hadn’t started Cinema Sips and met the right people along the way through that.”
Locke says her work at UT Press in the journals department helped keep her sights on her goal. Witnessing the publishing side of things firsthand gave her a dose of reality while allowing her to see the important and necessary magic of a marketing and sales team for a book’s success.
“I love all of my colleagues there,” Locke says. “They have been so supportive through this, highlighting my events on their social media and getting the word out.”
Locke has already begun working on her next novel, a contemporary romance set in Pittsburgh. She encourages all writers to keep writing and creating, even in the face of rejection. “I think finding joy in the writing process is the best way to get through,” Locke says. “Thank God I kept writing and started ‘Follow the Sun.’”