Gilchrist was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and spent part of her childhood on a plantation owned by her maternal grandparents. She earned a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy and studied creative writing, especially the work of Eudora Welty, at Millsaps College. Later in life, Gilchrist enrolled in the Creative Writing program at the University of Arkansas, but she never completed her MFA. Gilchrist has been married and divorced four times (two marriages and divorces were with the same man) and has three children, fourteen grandchildren and two great grandchildren. She lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Ocean Springs, Mississippi.
A success for the recently founded University of Arkansas Press, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (1981) sold more than 10,000 copies in its first ten months and won over immense critical acclaim. Victory over Japan, a collection of short stories, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1984. Gilchrist has also won awards for her poetry, although it is her short fiction for which she is most well-known. Gilchrist's stories are often praised for the characters that reappear regularly throughout her many volumes of short stories. Her latest book is "A Dangerous Age" (Algonquin, 2008).
Gilchrist was heard regularly as a commentator on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition from 1984-1985. Her NPR commentaries have been published in her book Falling Through Space.