An author's quest of Marco Polo


NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Bestselling author Gary Jennings didn't anticipate the problems he would have in researching his mammoth novel on Marco Polo's 13th century journey to China.

But Jennings, who is building a cabin in his native Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and has a home on a lake at Mexia, Texas, was shot at, jailed and came up on a detachment of Soviet tanks while retracing the steps of the famous Venetian explorer.


Jennings, 55, the author of the bestselling novel, 'Aztec,' spent almost all of 1981 traveling in Marco Polo's footsteps in the Eastern Hemisphere. The result is 'The Journeyer' (Atheneum, $17.95).

'The Journeyer' is Jennings' imagination filling in the unrecorded gaps of the great Italian explorer's travels to China, Indochina, India, Tibet, Lebanon and Afghanistan.

'Marco Polo didn't have the problem of crossing so many frontiers as I did,' Jennings said in a telephone interview. 'Naturally the minute I decided to do Marco Polo, everything blew up in the Middle East. Iran threw the Americans out. Afghanistan is no safe place for them. Anyhow, this required some subterfuges on my part.


Jennings said even 'supposedly friendly countries' like Turkey caused him problems. He said he was thrown into jail for violating a curfew in the military dictatorship.

'I happened to be traveling in the Kurdish part of Turkey which happens to be in rebellion against the authorities as it has been for the last 1,000 years or so, and when I was found up in there after curfew in a suspect part of the country without permission, they threw me in jail.

'I convinced them I was harmless,' he said.

'When I was in Thailand, I went into the up-country because Marco Polo didn't get down into the flesh pots of Bangkok because they didn't exist in those days.'

'So as long as I was in that part of the country I thought I would take a look at the poppy fields. It wasn't part of the book because in those days opium wasn't any big deal. So I marched up there and got shot at. Nothing serious. Just a warning shot across the bow but it knocked out the fuel pump in our car so we had to roll downhill again back to civilization.'

Since Afghanistan and Iran were both officially closed off, Jennings said he went to Pakistan to try the backdoor approach.


Afghanistan was overrun by Soviet troops.

'To get into Afghanistan I bribed my way into a camel caravan of smugglers. We got as far into Afghanistan as the caravan leader dared. He said we'd better make a detour. He said, 'You see that flag over yonder. That's a Soviet tank detachment sitting over there.'

'Some of the romance rubbed off this too because you would think a desert caravan would be smuggling spices, perfumes and slave girls. Do you know what they were carrying? They had Sonys and VCRs dangling on the humps of the camels.'

Jennings managed to get across the border into Iran into a 'dead, dreary desert. I'd gone to this kind of trouble to plod across the desert and my guide said, 'OK. We're now in Iran.' And I looked around me and the country looked exactly the same as what I'd just left. The people looked exactly the same and I asked myself what the hell have I gone to this trouble for. But I was able to say, Yes, I'd been there.'

'The Journeyer' is almost 800 pages long, but there's adventure on every single one in Marco Polo's dealings with the people along the 'silk road' to China, particularly his many samplings of love along the way.


Asked why he decided to write about Marco Polo, Jennings replied: 'It was a challenge. The minute I suggested this my agent and publishers said Marco has been in the public domain 700 years -- longer than Shakespeare. Everybody has done something about Marco Polo. It's the tiredest, most trite and worked-over subject in the world and that was why it appealed to me, because I wanted to do something really new and different about something that had been worked over all these centuries, and I think I did.'

Jennings has brought himself against a similar challenge in his next project.

'In the 20th century alone there have been 1,600 books about the circus. My adding one more would be superfluous unless I do something totally new and different. I'm intending to.

The story line will be about an American circus that leaves the United States because of the Civil War and travels to Europe.

'Even at my advanced age I'm a red blooded American boy and I'm going to run away with the circus.'

Latest Headlines