He was marooned by a mountain avalanche in Pakistan, arrested in Turkey and almost inadvertently married in Thailand. But to hear best-selling author Gary Jennings tell it, the mishaps that befell him during the research for his latest work, The Journeyer (Atheneum, $19.95), fit his modus operandi: “I try never to do the same thing twice.”
Jennings, 55, spent 1981 journeying to the same lands Marco Polo visited, filling in with his own imaginings the gaps in the record of the Italian explorer’s 13th-century travels. The result is a 782-page epic that made the New York Times best-seller list only weeks after its January publication.
Jennings labored 22 years and wrote 17 books before his 1980 novel, Aztec, caught fire (Avon Books paid $750,000 for the paperback rights, and it is being made into a miniseries by Dino De Laurentiis). Born the son of a printer in the Blue Ridge mountain town of Buena Vista, Va., Jennings attended art school in New York City in the 1940s, worked as a commercial artist, then served as a front-line correspondent for the Army during the Korean War. “When I got back to Madison Avenue,” he says, “I realized that copywriters made more than artists, so I switched.” He worked his way up to creative director of a small advertising agency, and in 1958 quit and headed west to write the great American novel.
“I starved and slept on park benches,” he says, relaxing in the airy living room of his hillside house in Marin County, Calif. “I wrapped myself in the pages of my manuscript to keep warm. For two and a half years I took odd jobs; nothing was going to deter me.”
Unfortunately that first novel, Sow the Seeds of Hemp, flopped. Children’s books followed—12 of them—before Jennings moved to San Miguel de Allende, a small town north of Mexico City, in 1968. One night he attended a sound-and-light show at the Teotihuacán pyramids. “It made the back of my neck prickle.” This experience gave him the idea of writing a novel about the Aztec Indians in the 16th century. Ten years of extensive travel among the Mexican Indians followed.
After Aztec became a best-seller his publisher wanted a Son of Aztec, but Jennings refused. Now intrigued by Marco Polo and with a hefty portion of a publisher’s $350,000 advance converted into five-gram gold ingots and tucked into a money belt, he left his third wife, Glenda, at home and set off.
Unlike Polo, Jennings hopscotched around Asia and the Middle East. He began his trek in Indonesia, then backtracked to Pakistan, where he wangled permission from authorities to travel the fabled Karakoram Pass through the Himalayan peaks, “a place of rope bridges and passages carved into the sides of tremendous mountains.” He didn’t get far before he was halted by an avalanche and trapped in the pass for more than a day. To leave Pakistan, Jennings claims he bought his way into a camel caravan of smugglers who were sneaking into Iran and Afghanistan.
Jennings then headed for the flesh-pots of Bangkok. While staying at a small hotel, he was offered his choice of women for the night, and in trying to extricate himself, inadvertently promised to marry the hotel hostess. Jennings had to pay the young woman to let him out of the marriage.
In Turkey he and his driver pulled into a fleabag after curfew and “were aroused Gestapo-style and hauled around to the local precinct.” The two were questioned for a day and a half before being released. Next, Jennings took a break, returned Stateside to pick up his wife, headed off to China with a Smithsonian tour and finished his research in Venice, where Marco Polo began his adventures.
Jennings, who recently bought a house near his native Blue Ridge mountains, is already deep into his next novel—this one about a circus that traveled around Europe in the 19th century. His research in cities like Vienna and Rome should be less risky than his Journeyer trek. “I figure,” says Jennings as he walks past the Mercedes in his garage, “that I paid my dues.”