His personal adventure with Russian steam-baths

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Bryon MacWilliams quit his newspaper job, moved to Russia, and came back with the first draft of his just-published book. (Kevin Riordan/Staff)

After seven years of deadline writing for newspapers, Bryon MacWilliams quit his reporting job and moved to Russia.

He knew only one of the nearly 150 million people who lived there. He couldn't speak Russian, either. He was 30.

"I knew I wanted to live more in the moment . . . and write, perhaps essays or short fiction," said MacWilliams, who departed for Moscow in 1996.

"I just knew it was time for me to go," he added. And when he returned after a dozen years, "I knew the last part of the journey was this book."

With Light Steam: A Personal Journey Through the Russian Baths was published in October by Northern Illinois University Press.

MacWilliams studied political science at Rutgers-Camden and hadn't planned on a newspaper career. He didn't go to Russia intent on writing a book either - particularly a book about the banya, or communal steam-baths, which are a fixture of Russian life.

But rapidly evolving Russia proved to be a powerful muse, and the Russian people - sardonic, earthy, emotionally complex - engaging companions.

"Russia was chaos when I got there," MacWilliams recalled Sunday before leaving on a weeklong West Coast book tour he had arranged and financed. "Russia was exciting, but a little scary."

The Soviet Union was history, state communism had given way to frontier capitalism, and "there was a lot of aggression and even blood on the streets," MacWilliams said.

"You'd see fistfights, and people passed out from drinking. But it was very alive. I felt awake and alert. It was a high."

By the end of his stay, he had become fluent in Russian, made friends, found romance (more than once), and begun to write With Light Steam, his first book.

The lushly observed, vividly written collection of meditations on the mechanics and meanings of the banya is, in his words, part journalism, part memoir. With Light Steam is written with a convert's rapturousness - and a journalist's eye for nuances.

The book is also a tutorial on the profoundly Russian rituals of taking, and making, steam, which is enjoyed communally and produced manually by a steam-maker, or parilshchik.

"If it's good steam, people are quiet, like church is quiet," he said. "And if you've made that steam, it's one of the best feelings."

Although the author was ready to return to the United States, being home again was difficult at first. "I felt kind of lost," he said.

The economy had tanked, and rather than fruitlessly searching for writing jobs, "it would have been better for me to get a job at a supermarket or something," he said.

Writing the book helped. "I knew I was going to finish it no matter what," MacWilliams said. "It was the main priority in my life."

He got an agent for the book, but the agent died before submitting the manuscript to publishers. MacWilliams began shopping it around himself, focusing on university presses, and the Northern Illinois University Press said yes.

He'll be reading from With Light Steam this week in Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco.

After that, "I don't really know what's next," MacWilliams said, smiling. "I'll be making space for something new."


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