How real is real? As a journalist, I try very hard to verify my facts, source all opinions, and present both sides of every issue. Quite frankly, making sure my stories are grounded in fact is as important as stringing together the right words to tell them.
I try to use the same discipline—in spirit, at least—when I write fiction. With a subject as laden with emotion as violent death in the Congo, however, it’s hard to be objective. That’s part of the appeal of writing fiction, of course; you’re allowed some license.
There is still an obligation to write as truthfully as you can, though, which is why I spent a full year just reading about the Congo before I put pen to paper to write Heart of Diamonds. Then I spent more time doing other kinds of research. The truths I learned threatened to make my fiction seem tame by comparison.
I read 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 thousands of pages of notes on events as real as they could be, let them percolate through my brain, then I wrote a work of “fiction.”