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Book from female boilermaker wins creative non-fiction award

Angela Gismondi
Book from female boilermaker wins creative non-fiction award
WILFRID LAURIER UNIVERSITY - Wilfrid Laurier University president Deborah MacLatchy (left) presents the 2023 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction to author Hilary Peach for her book Thick Skin: Field Notes from a Sister in the Brotherhood at the university’s Waterloo campus on March 27.

A book written by a female boilermaker who shared her experiences working in shipyards and pulp mills in B.C., the tar sands in Alberta, the rust belt in Ontario and power generating stations in U.S., has been awarded the 2023 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction.

Thick Skin: Field Notes from a Sister in the Brotherhood by Hilary Peach, published by Anvil Press, won the award, presented by Wilfrid Laurier University. It is the longest-running national literary award bestowed by a university in Canada.

The award recognizes a Canadian writer’s first or second published book. The book must have a Canadian locale and/or significance. Writer and literary journalist Edna Staebler established the award in 1991. It’s the only one offered in Canada for the genre.

Staebler is best known for her series of cookbooks, including Food That Really Schmecks.

“Her intention was to be able to shine a spotlight on books that might have a limited audience, that were interesting non-fiction…and to try and bring that book, introduce that book to a wider audience,” said Peach.

The B.C.-based author is also a boilermaker. She spent over two decades working as a welder and was one of the only women in the Boilermakers Union.

“It’s a series of stories about my experiences spending 20 years as a travelling welder/boilermaker. I was a pressure welder for the Boilermakers Union. What that means is that I travelled to pulp mills, chemical plants, big power plants across Canada and across the United States. I had these adventures. Each of the jobs kind of turned into a story, a little allegory. It’s a series of short stories really but they all go together.”


How it all started

Peach has written another book before this one.

Entitled, Bolt, it was a book of poems. She admits writing the second book on a different subject was not her idea.

“As I was signing the contract with the publisher in 2018 at Anvil Press, they said ‘How would you like to write a second book? And why don’t you write a memoir about welding?” she recalled. “I had never even thought of that. That was not even my idea. I said, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ He had already written up a contract, so I signed two contracts that day, which is completely unheard of in small press publishing. I was very excited.”

She spent the next three years coming up with ideas for the book.

“Then during COVID, I got a new job working for the government,” she said. “I wasn’t on the tools anymore and I just kind of got to it.”


A murder mystery with a trades twist in the works?

The initial publication was only 1,000 copies and it’s now in its seventh printing.

“The book is going kind of bananas largely because of the tradeswoman community,” said Peach.

Since her book was released she has received a lot feedback. She has done many speaking appearances at colleges, women in the trades groups, and at construction conferences.

“The tradeswomen community would come to me and say, ‘I’m really happy you wrote your book because I’ve never been able to explain to anybody what I do when I go to work and your book does that,’” she said. “I had one boilermaker tell me she was buying the book for every person in her family so they would know what she does at work. So there is a sense that my experiences are not unique and that women but also men who work in heavy construction are really happy and relieved that some of their stories are being told.”

She’s also had feedback from people who never worked in construction.

Peach says she is writing more stories about her experiences as a boilermaker which could be turned into a sequel book.

“I’m working on a series of essays and stories on this topic, but I would also like to write some mystery novels, fiction, that are set in industrial settings,” Peach said. “I think it would be a really interesting setting for a murder mystery.”

A ceremony and reception was held for Peach March 27 at Laurier’s Waterloo, Ont. campus. Peach presented a paper about women and men in construction and read some excerpts from the book as well as the new writing. The talk is expected to be broadcast on CBC’s IDEAS radio show.

Follow the author on Twitter @DCN_Angela.

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