- New West Anchor
- The New West author whose book (almost) didn't get written
The New West author whose book (almost) didn't get written
Author Hilary Peach says Thick Skin was an unexpected work
Hilary Peach of Queensborough is the author who penned Thick Skin/Mark Mushet
It’s been an interview weeks and weeks in the making—and it would appear fate intervened on the correct timeline.
Queensborough-based author Hilary Peach has been juggling all kinds of requests to speak at event after event: her book Thick Skin: field notes from a sister in the brotherhood has been walloped with support.
We were finally able to settle on a date to do the interview: Tuesday, March 7, the day before International Women’s Day—and as Peach gets ready to head to Detroit to speak about her work, we’re chatting about her book—the book that almost didn’t happen.
“I had submitted a poetry manuscript to Anvil Press … and I’d been on pins and needles waiting to hear back,” Peach tells The Anchor.
The company eventually got back to her, with a representative asking to meet up for coffee and a chat. Peach anticipated being told that the poetry manuscript wouldn’t fit the company’s catalogue and was waiting for a rejection.
But she was in for a surprise: the representative asked if she wanted to publish a book.
“I said, ‘Sure.’ And he said, ‘Do you want to publish two books?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’”
It turned out the company wanted her to write a memoir about her time working as a welder—and it was something Peach said she’d never considered.
Jumping in headfirst, she signed a contract and got to work writing. Fast forward to 2023, and the book is about to go through its third round of printing.
The collection of stories within the book—making up Peach’s experiences in the trades, as well as her journey around North America—touch on a variety of themes that allow the reader to reflect on the nuances of humanity, and the relationships people have. Peach writes with honesty and humour; she takes you right to job sites in places like Michigan, Montana, and Fort McMurray.
We at The Anchor had a chance to read the book, and so we asked Peach about some of the themes—the first one being loneliness and isolation.
“I was really prone to homesickness, and it is a sickness—whether you live with a family, or by yourself—if you get homesickness, it’s like seasickness. It’s tough, it’s hard.”
One of the ways Peach noted that that loneliness and isolation could be amplified was through standing out: it’s still relatively uncommon to see a woman working as a welder, though she says the industry continues to evolve. It’s come a long way from the days where she felt she had to separate her “welder” life from her “writer’s” life.
“I couldn’t talk to anybody at work about my art life, because they’d think I was a ‘sissy,’ or something, and then I couldn’t talk to anybody about my work because unless you’ve worked on these construction sites, you don’t have a sense of the visual, the audio, what the space is like. An unintended consequence of this book is that I was able to assimilate these two worlds, finally. I’m in my 50s now, and it’s such a relief, and it’s freed up so much space in my brain,” she says.
“The coming together of the trades community and the arts community has been really incredible,” adds Peach, who points to a book launch event that saw people from both communities come out to support her. “I feel whole.”
In the book, there are some incredible juxtapositions between the harshness of the environments welders like Peach have worked in, and the animals that she encounters in her journey. One of those includes an encounter with a sea lion that ends up stuck on a job site. Peach says it was important to include those animals, not only because they help to paint a picture using contrast—but because, of course, those encounters actually happen.
“[These worksites can be] a very hard environment. Very seldom are there natural elements actually at work. And then all of a sudden, a fox will come around a trailer, and they’ll eat at your sandwich. I had a lot of these visitations during my welding career, and I always thought of them as guidance figures.” Along with the sea lion, Peach has some incredible stories about a dog she met while renting out a room from some questionable characters. “They were very important in the actual living in these experiences.”
The work does not shy away from some of the ugliness—or, as she refers to it, monsters—that she encountered in her line of work. When asked about her feelings encountering some of the men who participated in crude, inappropriate behaviour on these job sites, she highlighted the importance of the good men who have worked as allies to stand up for her and for others.
“These [inappropriate] guys don’t only exist in the trades. They hide there sometimes … but they also exist in professional sports and the entertainment industry and in politics, education, finance. You couldn’t really name a sector where you don’t find the monster,” she explains, adding she shared these stories to underscore the support given to her by the men who spoke out. “All the other guys who didn’t [do these things] … we don’t talk about them. And the prejudice, the bias around how the bad men behave towards women, that bias is really unfair to the majority of guys who work in the trades.
“[In the trades], there is systemic racism and systemic toxic behaviour, but that’s also something that’s been inherited from 200 years of post-industrial revolution culture. There is a culture that exists that has some problems. In terms of the goodness of the individual people…I met maybe six guys I had a bad feeling about in 25 years of working in this industry.”
Still, there’s always room for improvement, according to Peach, who says that she’s optimistic as she’s watched the women in trades movement snowball.
“It’s a 200-year-old systemic inability or failure to include whole sectors of the population. It’s not even a culture of exclusion. It’s a failure to include. It’s a culture where people have said, ‘No, no, we’ve got this. We’re the ones who do this, this is our world.’ And is that changing? Yes, possibly, right this moment … cultural diversity has become a big part of our work.”
Another takeaway Peach spoke of was an importance for clear and open communication. We won’t spoil it for you, but there’s a can’t-miss story that comes up in the book regarding a couple and some—shall we say, strategically placed post-it notes. The couple’s relationship sours and ends in divorce. Peach says that story was a good reminder to keep talking with and listening to one another.
As we reflect on the 311 pages of incredibly written work, Peach reiterates her hope for the industry, particularly as the reception continues for her book.
“[I’m] surprised,” she says with a hearty chuckle. “I mean, I’m surprised that the book is getting so much attention and traction. Something is galvanizing communities … communities of women, but I’m also getting huge feedback from men in the trades. They’re saying, ‘Thank you for writing this book. I’ve watched this bad behaviour for years, and I want it to be known that we’re not all like that,’ so that’s very interesting.”
It was important for her, she says, to write a book that shows respect for the trades, and to both men and women.
“[Women] are not just victims, trying to push against a place that doesn’t want us. We’re also talented and strong and skilled and smart. But I also wanted the book to have respect for men…it’d be easy to write a book about how terrible it is for women, but it’s much more nuanced than that. We’re talking about human relationships, and human relationships are complex.”