Q: When did you know you wanted to write about Marco Polo? And Why?
A: When I began to conceive of writing about explorers some years ago, Marco Polo was the first person who came to mind, because of his renown and his influence on the Age of Discovery in general, and explorers such as Magellan and Columbus in particular. It's only now that I'm getting around to writing about his exploits and huge legacy, but the idea has been gestating for years. Beyond the obvious fascination of his life, and its exotic elements, I was struck by the lack of works for adults about him, and his travels. One other thing impelled me to write about Marco Polo now: my conviction that his Travels are timely. I began this book by immersing myself in the thirteenth century, but I ended it by realizing that his world is very similar to our own. Human nature and geography haven't changed, and the religious systems he encountered are still with us as potent presences. China, and trade with China, exerts as much fascination for us in the West as it did in Polo's day. After a while, I asked myself, "Has anything changed since then?" Obviously, a great deal has, but his Travels seem as useful, fresh, and provocative as up-to-date reportage.
Q: What kind of research did you do for the book and how long did it take you?
A: Researching this book has been a great challenge and often exhilarating. My travels in pursuit of Marco Polo took me to his home town, Venice, and across China, visiting places he described, including Beijing in the east, Hangzhou to the south, and Kunming to the west. I also visited Shanghai and Taiwan in pursuit of Marco Polo scholars and artifacts. Another trip took me to Mongolia, where I lived in a simple ger camp, as Mongols did in Marco Polo’s time and still do. (During Polo’s day, the Mongols, led by Kubla Khan, ruled China.) This was really the best way, perhaps the only way, to experience Asia and the Mongol mystique as Marco Polo did. The challenges were considerable. Significant sources for Marco Polo are in English, French, Italian, Persian, Latin, Mandarin, and Mongolian, among others. I relied on several translators for the more exotic tongues, and handled the French and Latin myself. Then there is the problem of pre-Gutenberg era sources, which are often jumbled and contradictory. There are, for instance, thirteen or fourteen early manuscripts of Marco’s book, but no authoritative source. Nor did he write it himself; it was ghostwritten for him when he was in jail. So it is no wonder questions
about the nature of Marco Polo and his account abound. Part of the reason I wrote this book was to explore some of these questions, lay some to rest, and test the others for significance.
Q: It's surprising that for such a well-known person, so little has been written about Marco Polo. Why do you think that is?
A: It is an unlikely situation. And I was as surprised as anyone else to find that this was the case. There are books for young readers, and a vast trove of scholarly articles of varying usefulness, but next to nothing for the general adult reader, despite Marco Polo's fame. Even now, I'm not sure of the reason for this oversight, but I think Polo's unique and unclassifiable personality, reflected in his work, has something to do with it, as does his incredible range. He covers so many countries, continents, cultures, and languages that it is difficult to approach him in his cross-cultural entirety. In addition, Marco Polo did a fine job of speaking for himself. He seemed to need no introduction, but that was five hundred years ago. Now his work needs background and context to explain the circumstances out of which this unique work arose.
Q: How did Marco Polo come to be so famous in his own time?
A: Marco’s stories might have been nothing more than evanescent rumor were it not for the unlikely fact that he was captured in battle against Genoa and jailed with a romance writer and notary named Rustichello of Pisa. A compulsive talker by all accounts, Marco told his stories to Rustichello, who wrote them down. Marco then took to promoting the manuscript, but his renown came gradually. In the fifteenth century, Sir John Mandeville, who wrote an entirely fictional and reasonably enjoyable account of his travels, outsold Marco Polo by five to one. Marco wanted his name to live forever as the greatest traveler of all time, and he had a difficult time convincing skeptical Venetians that he had actually seen as much of the world as he claimed and even served Kublai Khan, the most powerful emperor in the world. He might have been relegated to the mists of obscurity were it not for the fact that scholars and others began to confirm that nearly all of what Marco discussed was true. In the nineteenth century, his reputation underwent a major overhaul, and he was finally seen for what he was: a chronicler rather than a fantasist. Vindication took a long time in coming, centuries, in fact.
Q: How do you sort fact from fiction when writing about a man who was such a notorious storyteller?
A: That was not as troublesome as I expected, because I tapped into a large body of Marco Polo scholarship beginning in the nineteenth century which has done just that: verifying the travels, and pointing out where it diverges from other records, or chronology. The nineteenth-century French historian M. G. Pauthier painstakingly compared Marco's account against Chinese annals, and in almost every instance found independent verification of the people and deeds of which the Venetian wrote. Similarly, Henry Yule and Henri Cordier, who issued a popular English-language edition that is still popular today, corresponded with a global network of experts, most British, who diligently tracked down people, places, and things about which Marco wrote. Again, they generally found independent confirmation. One needs to be careful, however, to separate Marco's facts from his collaborator's fiction. Rustichello saw his job, in part, as one of sensationalizing the Venetian's account. So Rustichello interpolated accounts of battles and Christian miracle stories, some of them borrowed word for word from his other writings. Once you understand Rustichello's approach to the collaboration, it is relatively easy to distinguish between his embellishments and actual events. Actually, I think of their collaboration as being rather uneven, and it seems apparent to me where Rustichello imposes his literary conceits on Marco's account. Their literary voices and intentions did not blend; Nordhoff and Hall they were not. I must add one additional thought: Marco had a vivid imagination, and in the book, I speculate that it might have been fueled by his use of opium during his time in Afghanistan, the center, then as now, of the opium trade. As a result, much of his writing has a visionary or imaginative dimension, because he has a highly associative mind. One way to appreciate Marco's powers of perception and description is to compare his record with those left by other travelers of the same era. He captures so much more; it's a three-dimensional representation rather than one-dimensional.
Q: What did you learn in writing this book that most surprised you about Marco Polo?
A: How much his observations applied to the world today, to international trade, diplomacy, global strife, and the waxing and waning of political and financial systems. That would be one point. Another, related aspect concerns the way he has been classified. Marco Polo has always been seen as the archetypal medieval traveler. But the late medieval period in which he came of age was extremely fertile and dynamic; it was not a changeless, monolithic era by any means. And Venice was one of the most advanced areas in Western Europe; simply being there placed him on the cutting edge of his era. While there are trappings of the medieval mindset in his account, Marco is all about overcoming limits, and confounding orthodoxy. He was extraordinarily blasphemous by the standards of his day. Although he does not say so explicitly, he considers man the measure of all things, and so belongs more to the Renaissance, in my view.
Q: Is it true that Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy??
A: Not really. It is now believed that some form of noodles developed in Asia Minor, and spread along the Silk Road in both directions. Marco returned to Venice with news of extremely influential inventions, such as paper money and coal and gun powder, but not pasta. Or gelato.
Q: How much was Marco Polo a product of Venice and its unique geography and history?
A: At the beginning of his travels, and of his account, Marco saw the world as a traditional Venetian might. He observed customs, often disdaining them, and abhorred other religious practices. One can sense fear and mistrust coupled with smugness in his opinions. But Marco was gone for over two decades and came of age on the Silk Road. Inevitably, his mind opened to possibilities he could scarcely imagine back in Venice. Still, he remained the merchant through and through, trading, counting, assessing. He must have been an expert salesman.
Q: When you went on a business trip in Polo's day you might be gone for ten plus years! What was life like for a merchant along the Silk road? How dangerous were the times?
A: Life on the Silk Road was one of hardship and constant stress, as Marco Polo writes. Bandits posed a constant threat to life and property, and the Polo company had several narrow escapes. In fact, bandits posed such a great danger that much of the Silk Road was shut down until the Mongols brought a militaristic sort of peace - the Pax Mongolica - to it. Then there was the weather. Marco described the difficulties of climbing the Pamirs, the so-called Roof of the World, a region so high that no birds flew, and fires starved for lack of oxygen. Snowstorms also tried the patience and strength of Venetians accustomed to warmer weather. Lightning and earthquakes were constant menaces, as were poison wells, poison insects, and flash floods. But life on the Silk Road had its peculiar compensations and diversions. Every few miles, caravanserais offered travelers respite from the hardship of life on the Silk Road. Within, they could find food and shelter for themselves and their animals. Marco also writes that some remote towns were exceptionally hospitable to travelers, offering them bed, and board, and
Q: Marco Polo’s relationship with the great Kublai Khan is an important and fascinating one. Why and how do you think they became so close? How much did their relationship shape European perceptions about Asia?
A: Marco and Kublai Khan needed each other. As Marco makes readily apparent, he distinguished imself as a candid reporter and intelligence gatherer, and the Khan was glad to have the benefit of his perceptions. And Marco, in turn, needed the Mongol emperor for protection in the vast and wild Asian continent. Marco could be very charming, and he knew how to charm Kublai Khan. That was a special gift. Marco’s travels had everything to do with shaping European perceptions of China. I can’t think of another account to match its influence. Although it took a while to spread, especially in the pre-Gutenberg era, when accounts such as this went from hand to hand in manuscript form.
Q: A movie is in the works based on Marco Polo’s life, with Matt Damon slated to star. Are you involved in that process?
A: I'm consultant for the movie, which is produced by Warner Brothers, with a script written by William Monahan, who also wrote "The Departed." From time to time, I'm asked about the plausibility of potential story lines, but the movie, being a movie, has a life of its own. As a writer, I have the luxury of being able to spin out a complex story over several hundred pages, but a movie is necessarily somewhat compressed. In my mind, these are separate entities, and I naturally see things in terms of how they work on the page.
Q: For most of us, our first exposure to the name Marco Polo is the kids swimming pool game. When and where did that originate?
A: Search me! It has nothing to do with the real-life Marco Polo, or even with early legends surrounding him.
Q: You have written about Magellan and about voyaging to Mars and now about Marco Polo, what draws you to the idea of explorers and exploration? Is biography its own form of exploration? That is to say, do you find that you and your subjects share similar character traits?
A: When I was younger, I tended to believe that I should write about people with whom I identified in some way, or about whose life and worlds I knew, at least in passing. That impulse led me to a figure like James Agee. Eventually, I realized that approach was rather limiting, and it was more challenging, exciting, and gratifying to explore people, and worlds, who were different. Escaping, if only temporarily, the limits of self is, for me, one of the luxuries of writing history and biography. To alter the familiar maxim, I start out writing about something I don't know, but by the end of the project, I feel as if I know it as well or better than myself. But I never confuse myself with my subjects, and if we have any traits in common, I'm not aware of them. Or maybe I prefer not to be aware of them.
It seemed natural to go from people who explored the farthest reaches of their artforms, people such as Louis Armstrong, to actual explorers. Their journeys seemed a good working metaphor for the process of writing a book. For twenty years, between books, I thought of writing about explorers, but somehow I never got past the most familiar figures. When I was writing about NASA, scientists there kept mentioning Ferdinand Magellan to me, and eventually I became intrigued with his circumnavigation, and I was launched on a new venture. Magellan led back to Marco Polo, in part because Magellan's Venetian chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta, wrote in emulation of the Travels. One could argue that the entire Age of Discovery was inspired by Marco Polo's Travels.
Q: This story is very much about commerce as a universal language--everybody was willing to make a deal--and in that sense it's a very timely story. In what other ways was Polo's world similar to ours today?
A: On one level, this is a book about global commerce, and as such it is quite timely. Marco Polo intended his stories to join a recognized if specialized genre, that of tips and tricks for commercial travelers on the Silk Road. Diplomats had their official papers, soldiers had their orders, religious figures had their sacred texts, and Marco wanted those like him to have a field book for doing business with Asia, incorporating everything from local political systems, items worth trading (especially gems), comfortable stopovers, and the disposition of the locals. Although Marco feigns disapproval, he diligently points out where the weary, and lonely, traveler on the dusty reaches of the Silk Road is likely to find feminine companionship or a spiritual community, depending on his mood. In any case, Marco seems equally interested in both realms, which adds to his appeal, and helps to make him fully human in a way that anticipates the Renaissance. At times it seemed to me that he was writing a "Rough Guide" to
Asia, that is, a slightly offbeat, personal tour of the Mongol Empire and the Chinese. Once you peel away the literary conventions of the genre, you can see that he was mainly interested in offering commercial advice and boasting of his exploits. He very much wanted to be seen as the high roller returning in triumph to Venice with the spoils of commerce. There's a bitter irony to his wish, because in Venice, he did not stand out. He was another traveler returned from Asia, bragging of his exploits. His family was wealthy, but not part of the small clique that controlled affairs of state for the Republic. It was only his marvelous travels that set him apart. Contemporaneous accounts of Marco Polo often have a distinct air of skepticism and condescension.
What else is like today? Well, China was seen then as a sleeping giant just beginning to awaken, a land of extraordinary and underutilized resources; that certainly has a contemporary ring. The Mongols were seen as sweeping out of the East, across Europe on the way to global conquest, another belief that has a familiar unnerving ring. And Marco Polo's Venice was roughly comparable to the large commercial centers of today, such as New York and London, or perhaps Paris in the nineteenth century - a magnet for those seeking wealth and status, a glittering civilization that was also merciless and, underneath, soulless. Indeed, there's a lot of indirect evidence that Marco found it stifling; the wide open spaces of the Asian Steppe beckoned him, and ultimately liberated him. When he returned to Venice - to skepticism, rather than glory - I was intrigued to note that he became so much less interesting and individualistic. Ultimately, he joined that which he had managed to escape, by which I mean highly stratified Venetian society. Today, we value Marco the Prodigal son of the Travels, not Marco the curmudgeonly paterfamilias that he became in later life.
Q: Is there anyone today who reminds you of Marco Polo?
A: There are more Marco Polos today than ever before. I’m referring to global businessmen who are pioneering trade between East and West, and discovering, like Marco before them, that commerce is a type of universal language, and cuts across religious, political, and geographical boundaries.