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Bernard Diederich sits at a desk in his Coral Gables home and remembers an era of spies, civil wars, and political assassinations. The bookshelves behind the veteran foreign correspondent are full of the books he's written — mostly on dictators like François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, Anastasio Somoza, and Rafael Trujillo — as well as relics of his own amazing life, including a replica of the four-masted ship he sailed on as a 16-year-old during World War II. But the one thing that predominates — both on the shelves and in conversation — is literary legend Graham Greene.
"He was a real loner," Diederich, now 86, says of the writer of spy classics such as Our Man in Havana, The End of the Affair, and The Quiet American. "But we became very good friends."
That unto itself would be quite an accomplishment, given Greene's lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder. But Diederich and Greene's relationship went much deeper. For several decades, the two traveled throughout Haiti and Central America together. Those adventures — full of whiskey and political intrigue — were the fodder of Diederich's reporting and Greene's novels.
One trip in particular is legendary, largely because Greene used it as the basis for his 1966 novel The Comedians.
Diederich had moved to Port-au-Prince in 1949 and founded a newspaper. After Papa Doc took power in 1957, journalism became much more dangerous. In the spring of 1963, his political opponents began disappearing. Diederich reported on the arrests of dozens of military officers, but when he himself was thrown in the National Penitentiary, the writer found it oddly quiet. It wasn't until his release that he realized the officers had been killed.
"They were specialists in breaking bones," Diederich says of Papa Doc's thugs, known as the Tontons Macoutes.
Diederich was released unharmed, fled the country, and later met Greene in the Dominican Republic. He too had witnessed the atrocities in Haiti. Over Barbancourt rum, the two men became friends. In 1965, when Greene visited again, Diederich took him on a three-day trip along the border.
Accompanied by a Haitian priest whose family had been "disappeared" by Duvalier, the two writers visited the former insane asylum that had become a Haitian rebel camp. The bizarre scene went straight into Greene's novel.
"The building was terrible. It was full of goat shit, piled high," Diederich remembers. "The rebels were using World War I Enfield rifles bought from a Cuban in Miami."
Duvalier banned both the book and movie versions of The Comedians in Haiti. But Greene kept writing, and Diederich kept on helping him. The reporter introduced the novelist to Latin American heavyweights such as Panamanian President Omar Torrijos, Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, and even Fidel Castro.
Over the years, the two developed an almost father-son relationship, which is now the basis of Diederich's new book, Seeds of Fiction: Graham Greene's Adventures in Haiti and Central America 1954-1983.
"I felt like so many people had written such trash about him, some of it completely fabricated," he says. "When I first met him, I thought he was your typical stuffy Englishman." Instead, Diederich found himself friends with the greatest spy novelist who ever lived.