Russell Freedman on Writing The Adventures of Marco Polo

Book Links Sept. 2006 (vol. 16, no. 1)

Marco Polo and I have a few things in common. Both of us visited China. My favorite Chinese city is the same as his. And we both traveled along the Silk Road.

I followed the Silk Road by train and bus from Xi’an, where a stone monument marks the traditional beginning of the road, as far west as the Turkestan heartland of Kashgar, an ancient oasis city where merchants at the weekly market still bargain for horses and haggle over fine tribal rugs.

Marco, traveling by camel caravan, was coming from the opposite direction when he stopped at Kashgar on his way into China. He had just made his way over the precipitous mountain passes of the Hindu Kush, "said to be the highest place in the world," he wrote. After stocking up on provisions in Kashgar (maybe he visited the same market I did), he continued on to China’s summer capital at Shangdu. By the time he reached his destination, he had traveled some 8,000 miles since setting out from Venice and spent three and a half years on the road.

Marco described Quinsai (today’s Hangzhou) in southeast China as "the finest and most splendid city in the world." He returned there many times during his 17-year stay in China, and his vivid descriptions of the city, its people, and their way of life are among the highlights of his book. "When travelers return home," he wrote, "they say they have been to Quinsai, that is to say, the City of Heaven, and they can scarcely wait for a chance to return there."

Today Hangzhou is a modern city, but when I visited there several years ago I could appreciate Marco’s love for the place. The city is famous for its large and beautiful West Lake, surrounded by hills and gardens. I spent a memorable day walking with a friend around the shores of the lake. Pleasure boats still glide idly across its waters, as they did in Marco’s day; its shores are dotted with temples and pavilions, and at a restaurant on an island in the middle of the lake, people still dine happily on West Lake fish, as they have for centuries. It was during that walk that I first thought of writing a book about Marco Polo and his travels.

Usually I do the picture research for my books entirely on my own, but this time I knew I was going to need plenty of help. I met with Arthur Levine, my editor at Scholastic, and we agreed that the book should have a combination of original illustrations and archival reproductions. Arthur suggested Bagram Ibatoulline as the artist, knowing that I had admired his work for some time. Arthur’s staff, working with Scholastic’s art department and with scholars knowledgeable about the period, came up with a huge amount of archival material from the period, which was narrowed down to the selections in the book. Bagram, meanwhile, drew inspiration from illuminated manuscripts and approached his work as if he were a contemporary of Marco Polo’s.

I also felt a strong connection to the past when I walked around West Lake that day, and later, in my New York study, when I immersed myself in Marco’s life and times and started to write.—
Russell Freedman