Harrison's maternal grandparents raised her in Los Angeles. She graduated from Stanford University in 1982 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Art History; she received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa in 1987 after attending that school's Writers' Workshop. She lives in New York with her husband, the novelist and book editor Colin Harrison, whom she met in 1985, when they were enrolled in the Iowa Writers' Workshop. They have three children, born in 1990, 1992, and 2000.
The bestselling author famously documented a triangulation that developed involving her young mother, her father, and herself in the memoir The Kiss, which described her father's seduction of the author when she was twenty and their incestuous involvement, which persisted for four years and is reflected in the plots and themes of her first three novels, published before The Kiss. While much of her body of work...the essays collected in Seeking Rapture: Scenes From a Life; a second memoir, The Mother Knot; and The Kiss...documents her tortured relationship with her mother, who died in 1985, she also has written extensively of her maternal grandparents, both in her personal essays and, in fictionalized form, in her novels. Her grandmother was raised in Shanghai, where she lived until 1920, her experiences there inspiring Harrison's historical novel, The Binding Chair. The Seal Wife, set in Alaska during World War I, draws on the early life of her British grandfather, who spent his youth trapping animals to obtain their fur in the Northwest Territories and laying track into Anchorage for the Alaska Railroad.
Harrison has published six novels, three memoirs, a travelogue, a biography, and a book of true crime. She frequently publishes reviews in The New York Times Book Review. Her personal essays have been included in many anthologies and have appeared in Bookforum, Harper's Magazine, More Magazine, The New Yorker, The Oprah Magazine, and Vogue, and at Salon.com, Nerve.Com and elsewhere.
Harrison teaches memoir writing at the City University of New York's Hunter College as part of the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing.