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Author Susan Orlean on Giving Herself Permission to Repurpose Her Mother’s Jewelry

Author Susan Orlean is popping up everywhere these days: the New York Times Book Review has featured her latest work, The Library Book, and she was Pamela Paul’s guest on The Book Review podcast. She was also given a well-deserved spotlight in The Washington Post, USA TODAY, and The National Book Review. And of course, she remains a staff writer at The New Yorker, a role she’s held since 1992. Because of her hectic schedule, I was especially thrilled she agreed to do this Q&A with me.

I found our conversation intimate and revealing. You’ll learn how Orlean uses food and music to remember her parents, and the way she ensures her teenage son stays connected to them. I’m incredibly grateful for her time and frankness.

Allison: What mementos remind you most of your parents?
Susan: I have a charm bracelet of my mother’s that evokes her so perfectly; she chose every charm on it to represent something important in her life, so it’s as if she created a memento for me that would express exactly who she was. I wear it sometimes, and otherwise I keep it in the front of my jewelry case, so I see it all the time. I have a shirt of my father’s that I keep hanging in the closet, so that every time I open my closet, I feel like I’m catching a glimpse of him.

Allison: Have you ever “repurposed” an item that belonged to your mom or dad?
Susan: I have a lot of my mother’s jewelry, and I’ve taken a few of those pieces and repurposed them into something more my style. It felt uncomfortable at first, as if I were destroying their sentimental value, but I discovered that I still feel connected to my mother through the pieces, even when I’ve changed them. The essence of the memory hasn’t changed at all.

Allison: What is the most satisfying way you’ve developed for keeping their memory alive (sharing stories, cooking certain foods, playing specific music)? 
Susan: All of these! I like to tell my thirteen-year-old son as many stories about my parents as I can, because he doesn’t remember them very well, and I want him to have a sense of who they were and what they meant to me. I have my mother’s recipe collection and often cook things from it; I love seeing her notes and annotations, and the food itself is a powerful reminder. And both of my parents loved music and played it all the time — a habit that I’ve developed, too. When I listen to show tunes or opera (which both of them loved), I feel like I’m reconnecting with them.

Allison: What do you know now about keeping the memory of your mother and father alive that you didn’t know when the losses occurred?
Susan: The experience of loss was so searing that at first I felt like remembering my parents would be upsetting. Once the immediacy of the loss had passed, I discovered that remembering them, and revisiting the memory of them, could bring me a lot of pleasure. There is still great sadness when I think about them being gone, but now I savor the chance to think about them, and to do something that brings them to mind. The pain of losing my parents has been overridden by my appreciation of having so many poignant and happy memories of them.