Ellen Gilchrist, 1984 National Book Award winner for ‘Victory Over Japan,’ dies at 88

Feb 1, 2024, 4:05 PM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Ellen Gilchrist, a National Book Award winner whose short stories and novels drew on the complexities of people and places in the American South, has died. She was 88.

An obituary from her family said Gilchrist died Tuesday in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, where she had lived in her final years.

Gilchrist published more than two dozen books, including novels and volumes of poetry, short stories and essays. “Victory Over Japan,” a collection of short stories set in Mississippi and Arkansas, was awarded the National Book Award for fiction in 1984.

Gilchrist said during an interview at the Mississippi Book Festival in 2022 that when she started writing in the mid-1970s, reviewers would ridicule authors for drawing on their own life experiences.

“Why?” she said. “That’s what you have. That’s where the real heart and soul of it is.”

Gilchrist was born in 1935 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and spent part of her childhood on a remote plantation in the flatlands of the Mississippi Delta. She said she grew up loving reading and writing because that’s what she saw adults doing in their household.

Gilchrist said she was comfortable reading William Faulkner and Eudora Welty because their characters spoke in the Southern cadence that was familiar to her.

Gilchrist married before completing her bachelor’s degree, and she said that as a young mother she took writing classes from Welty at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. She said Welty would gently edit her students’ work, returning manuscripts with handwritten remarks.

“Here was a real writer with an editor and an agent,” Gilchrist said of Welty. “And she was just like my mother and my mother’s friends, except she was a genius.”

During a 1994 interview with KUAF Public Radio in Arkansas, Gilchrist said she had visited New Orleans most of her life but lived there 12 years before writing about it.

“I have to experience a place and a time and a people for a long time before I naturally wish to write about it. Because I don’t understand it. I don’t have enough deep knowledge of it to write about it,” she said.

She said she also needed the same long-term connection with Fayetteville, Arkansas, before setting stories there. Gilchrist taught graduate-level English courses at the University of Arkansas.

Her 1983 novel “The Annunciation” had characters connected to the Mississippi Delta, New Orleans and Fayetteville. She said at the Mississippi Book Festival that she wrote the story at a time when she and her friends were having conversations about abortion versus adoption.

“It wasn’t so much about pro or con abortion,” Gilchrist said. “It was about whether a 15-year-old girl should be forced to have a baby and give her away, because I had a friend who that happened to.”

Her family did not immediately announce plans for a funeral but said a private burial will be held.

Gilchrist’s survivors include her sons Marshall Peteet Walker, Jr., Garth Gilchrist Walker and Pierre Gautier Walker; her brother Robert Alford Gilchrist; 18 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

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Ellen Gilchrist, 1984 National Book Award winner for ‘Victory Over Japan,’ dies at 88