Gilbert started writing about Mile End while on maternity leave in 2008.
“I took a lot of walks with my daughter, and often I was pushing the stroller very slowly to get her to sleep,” she explains. “I got to observe my surroundings in detail.”
The immediate result was Mile Endings, a blog that recorded the people and places affected — for better or for worse — by the neighbourhood’s ongoing gentrification. It found an enthusiastic audience.
Gilbert’s journalistic approach led her to unique stories. A long-time hatmaker who was going out of business and a cloistered Carmelite nun were among the residents she interviewed; her fiction contains characters loosely inspired by each of them.
“That’s what literature’s all about: experiencing what it might be like to be someone else,” Gilbert says. “I don’t write only about myself because I’m not that interesting. In fiction, you can imagine other realities.”
Upon turning 40, Gilbert decided to leave freelancing for a steadier job. Her Concordia degree helped open the door to her current position as a literature professor at Dawson College in downtown Montreal.
Gilbert occasionally returns to Concordia as a guest lecturer for creative-writing students. Her advice to them? “Submit, submit, submit.”
Yet she knows this can be tough for people who aren’t brimming with confidence — people such as her younger self. “For a long time, I was just quietly writing stuff, leaving it on my hard drive and waiting for it to be discovered somehow,” she admits.
She also likes to ask students what they write about and where they find their inspiration. She tells them she feeds her own creativity by going out and seeing what’s happening.
Although her ideas come from close to home, Gilbert hopes her stories will resonate even with readers who aren’t familiar with Mile End.
“My publisher is in Vancouver, and there are similar neighbourhoods there — in almost any city — that have been through many evolutions,” she says. “I like tracking the changing cityscape: we’re all a part of it.”