As a journalist, I try mightily to verify my facts, source all opinions, and present both sides of every issue. Quite frankly, making sure my magazine feature stories are grounded in fact is as important as stringing together the right words to tell them. I try to use the same discipline when I write fiction. Even the genesis of Heart of Diamonds, my romantic thriller about diamond smuggling in the Congo, was subject to rigorous fact checking.
The concept for Heart of Diamonds sprang from an article in Time Magazine about the cozy relationship between Pat Robertson, the famous American televangelist, and Mobutu Sese-Seko, the dictator who raped the Congo for more than thirty years. When I found out Robertson owned diamond and gold mines and timber concessions in the Congo—making profits from what amounted to slave labor, no less—Heart of Diamonds was born.
Before I went deeper, though, I checked out the original Time Magazine article and found other reputable news sources that confirmed the basic facts. The Robertson-Mobutu connection was quite real. Mobutu, as you might recall, was essentially put in office by the CIA. He ran the country (which he renamed Zaire) with an iron fist while he and his minions stole literally billions of dollars. He also had one of the worst human rights records in Africa, which is saying a lot.
You wouldn’t think Mobutu and Pat Robertson would have a lot in common, would you? Robertson is one of the most successful evangelical preachers of all time. He founded the 700 Club, ran for President of the United States, and has millions of followers who subscribe to his version of Christianity. Doesn’t sound much like the makings of a buddy movie.
But it could have been. Encouraged by Mobutu, who controlled everything in the country, Robertson was deeply involved in money-making ventures in the Congo. The Time article reported that one time in the late 1980’s, Robertson and his wife and their entourage were flown from Paris to Kinshasa on one of Mobutu’s personal Boeing 707s. Once in Zaire, Mobutu personally took them on the presidential yacht on a ride up the Congo River to visit one of his estates.
In addition to a relief program in the Congo, Operation Blessing, Robertson had a private concern called the African Development Company, which made investments in mining, lumber, agriculture, transportation and power generation, supposedly with an eye to plowing the profits back into humanitarian efforts. One of those investments was a diamond mine in a small town south of Tshikapa near the Congo’s border with Angola. That’s where I placed the diamond mine in Heart of Diamonds.
One of the men who ran ADC for Robertson was Bill Lovick, a former minister who had been dismissed by the Assemblies of God church in 1985 for questionable fund raising practices. Readers of Heart of Diamonds may find similarities between these men and some of the characters in the novel, notably televangelist Gary Peterson, the missionary Thomas Alben who runs the diamond mine, and Moshe Messime, the President of the Congo.
As I read more and more about these guys and the things they were doing in the Congo in the name of Jesus Christ, the more fascinated I became with the potential for a novel. Heart of Diamonds obviously isn’t their story—the smuggling scheme, the connection to the White House, the U.S. military involvement, and so on are completely fictional. But there is a basis in fact.
In addition to researching Pat Robertson’s escapades, I did a ton of reading about the Congo, it’s history, politics, flora, fauna, and people. The truths I read threatened to make my fiction seem tame.
I studied everything from 19th century tales of exploration and the cruelties of King Leopold’s colonization to the MUNOC reports on violence in North Kivu Province, from missionary accounts from the 1970’s to news reports on the excesses of Mobutu’s regime. I compiled several thousand pages of notes on events as real as they could be, let them percolate through my brain, and then I wrote Heart of Diamonds, a work of “fiction.”