Ellen Louise Gilchrist was born on February 20, 1935, in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Gilchrist earned a B.A. in philosophy from Vanderbilt University. She then studied creative writing under Eudora Welty and earned a B.A. from Millsaps College. She later worked on an M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of Arkansas.
Gilchrist worked as a contributing editor for Vieux Carre Courier. Afterwards she published a collection of poems called The Land Surveyor's Daughter. Her first anthology of short stories, The Land of Dreamy Dreams, won critical acclaim. Another collection of short stories, Victory over Japan, won the National Book Award in 1984. She is known for her novels, The Anna Papers, A Dangerous Age, and Net of Jewels. Gilchrist has taught creative writing at the University of Arkansas.