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Michael Hainey’s new memoir, “After Visiting Friends,” was 10 years in the making, but he’s pretty much been writing it all his life.
The title borrows from an obituary about his father, Robert, a cut-to-the-chase newspaperman who died without warning at age 35 on Chicago’s North Side in 1970. Although he was only 6 at the time, Hainey began questioning the play-by-play of that cataclysmic night a few years later. Now deputy editor at GQ, he seems to have inherited his father’s dogged reporting skills, tracking down more than 100 potential sources — often flying or driving for hours to look them square in the eye to figure out what they might tell him.
Working in the Windy City when it was still a five-newspaper town, the elder Hainey was the Sun-Times’ slot man working the 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift, churning out three different editions of the paper each night. His son recalls a time when cops and newspapermen were still comrades, newsroom gals wore tight sweaters with pointy bras and a great martini could be had for 75 cents. All of those factors played a hand in his father’s undoing. “Sometimes in our lives in order to go forward, we have to go into the past,” he says. “Sometimes I think to understand who we are we have to understand who our parents were. We are their sequels not just physically. We are their stories and our stories are entwined with theirs.”
As for the book’s appeal, Hainey says, “This is a journey many people long to take — to go in search of something about their parents or their family’s story. It’s why I talk about weaknesses and confusion — to tell someone it’s an easy trip, it’s not. These quests are very complicated.”
Tight-lipped as many were, especially his father’s inner circle, giving up was never part of the equation. “It just goes against your whole ethos as a journalist. You want to find the truth,” says Hainey, who often awoke at 4:30 a.m. to write for a few hours before going to work. When time allowed, he would spend lunch in the New York Public Library’s Reading Room reviewing what he’d written. Weekends were often spent cold-calling leads on the phone or in person.
With a résumé that includes degrees from Notre Dame and Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Hainey, a published poet, says poetry can be found in well-compressed, good newspaper writing. “What can you take away and still be unforgettable? Most people talk too much. Most people write too much,” he says.
Talking too much is clearly not a trait of Hainey’s. Over black coffee in a nondescript Midtown diner Tuesday afternoon, the Chicago native is disarmingly calm, often considering a question for a moment or two before answering it. Just as his Scribner-published book does not sugarcoat his relatives, he is equally frank about himself, referencing what his doctor described as “a functional breakdown” at age 36. “I had my job during the week but I had a hard time being social. It’s almost like walking pneumonia. You’re fine but people don’t know the level of melancholy you have and that clouds your ability to interact with others,” he says.
Aside from getting closer to his mother, Barbara, and his brother, Chris, Hainey says there are other upsides to baring some of the more personal moments of his family’s life. “I think I owe it to readers to tell the truth and to be honest. Maybe it’s a way to help somebody else. Our gift sometimes as writers is being able to articulate what others can’t.…I hope the book inspires people. If you just put yourself in motion, you have no idea the people you will meet who will help you.”
Soon off on a five-city book tour, Hainey’s future goals include publishing a book of poetry and another nonfiction book, and staging an exhibition of his paintings in Portugal. (Thom Browne is among the fans of his art.) And of course, there is a full-time job at GQ. “I don’t really ever relax. My reward is working,” he says.