- Photography by Mr Bjorn Iooss | Words by Mr John Ortved
When US GQ's deputy editor Mr Michael Hainey was six years old, he woke up to discover that his father - a night-time copy editor at the Chicago Sun-Times - was dead. After Visiting Friends - A Son's Story, a memoir Mr Hainey took 10 years to complete, is not only a touching remembrance, but something of a potboiler, as the seasoned journalist searches out medical records, police reports, old friends and estranged family members - taking us back to Chicago in the 1960s, into a world of hardboiled newspaper men - to discover what really happened to his father on the night of his death.
On a recent Sunday, in he and his partner Ms Brooke Cundiff's homey, stylish West Village apartment, Mr Hainey sat with MR PORTER to discuss the power of poetry, sequels and good reporting.
Now that your book is edited, published and on the
bookshelves, do you feel some closure?
I think there's a sense of resolution. But, we as children are our parents' sequels, in terms of stories. We are created by our parents, but our stories and their stories are so intertwined. I know what happened. But it doesn't mean I stop thinking about him. I think I'll always have that "What if he lived?" question. There's closure to the mystery, but I don't think that wound ever heals.
It's not just a memoir; it's also kind of a mystery.
I've always wanted to be a poet. That's how I started writing. That's why the lines are very compressed. Poetry teaches you to sort of crystallise your thinking. But I never saw it as a mystery. I was writing a book that was a search for an answer. I didn't realise until I had finished, and when people were giving me feedback, that it's a mystery.
Back in the 1970s there weren't many single women living in the suburbs. I was the only one in my school who did not have a father. People weren't even divorced in my neighbourhood
You write about your mother and father's first date, and she's wearing a blue skirt and a yellow cashmere cardigan. These are intimate details that make this book feel real. How did you get those details?
That's what stays at the heart of the book: reporting. The book opens with a scene in which my grandmother says, "There's lots of stories you've never heard." It's a book where there are stories inside of stories, inside of stories. And good stories have details. I wanted also to pay homage in the book to the power of memory - how people can remember details that are so vibrant for them, and yet you never really learn them unless you ask them.
Your mother raised two boys on her own.
With this book, I went looking for my father but I found my mother. She is the hero of this book, but - I've always told people - she's the hero of my life. Back in the 1970s there weren't many single women living in the suburbs. I was the only one in my school who did not have a father. People weren't even divorced in my neighbourhood. I also forget she was 33 when he died. So she's incredibly strong.
Your father, a reporter, made it a point to dress well. Here you are, deputy editor of GQ. Do you think there's a sartorial line we can draw as well as a journalistic one?
It was surprising when my grandmother told me that detail. I guess maybe it's one of those things I inherited, but I never would have known about it.
After Visiting Friends - A Son's Story is published by the Scribner Book Company and is out now
The news business is always in the background. Your dad and his friends, the papers in Chicago in the 1960s all clustered together downtown. Media is so, so different now. It seems much less clubby.
Anyone who looks at it has to say, wow, that must have been a fun time. I would have liked to experience what they had. But half of the guys - they drank, they smoked - didn't make it to 60 because of that.
You came to journalism through Spy magazine.
Spy was the most amazing finishing school. I came there to be exposed to the great minds: Graydon Carter, Kurt Andersen, Susan Morrison. There was a group of us that were young assistants and reporters and writers, getting paid nothing. There was a place downtown with $5 pitchers of beer. What meant a lot to me was coming up with nothing, and you sort of make your way in New York. It's sort of funny now - I see 25 year olds talking about having dinner at RedFarm - and I'm like, "Where do you get the money to eat at these restaurants?" I marvel, "So you have $4.50 to get Starbucks every morning?" I don't want to sound like the old man but I'm amazed, it now seems to be about consuming the culture.
Your book has excellent placement at our neighbourhood bookstore, Three Lives & Company.
My editor emailed me and wanted to know if I would come by Three Lives and sign copies, and I said "Sure". As Brooke and I turned the corner, we saw it in the window. I was talking to the owner, Toby, and I started to cry. I said, "I worked on this book for 10 years - my studio was over there - I would walk by your bookstore. I would look in the window and I would think, 'One day I will be here'."
As Brooke and I turned the corner, we saw it in the bookshop window. I was talking to the owner, Toby, and I started to cry. I said, 'I worked on this book for 10 years'
When you were younger - because your father died before he was 35 - did you just assume you were going to die young?
Yeah. I can remember being nine or 10 and thinking, what's the point of having a family? What's the point of falling in love? I will die and I will leave people behind. It's pretty grim for a boy. But, as I got to be 33, 34, 35, and came out the other side, I had to really think, and find out what I wanted to do. As I was coming up on that age that he died, that kind of precipitated wanting to find out the truth. It all coalesced on that. I never thought I'd outlive him.
In the book, you go so deep, personally and professionally. As a journalist reading After Visiting Friends, it's like what it must be for a comic watching Mr Louis CK. You're watching the process. You really went down and dirty.
I think the book resonates with people because there's a fair amount of me saying, "I don't know, I'm lost, I'm confused." This is a very personal story, but it's also universal, because we all have family, and every family has a secret, or secrets. And we all want to find the answers. I wanted to inspire people. I thought it was important to show the reader that this was not an easy thing. But I hope I can inspire people by showing I did this. I stuck with it. I was afraid. I had doubts and fears. But my journey could be your journey.