Haruf was born in Pueblo, Colorado, the son of a Methodist minister. He graduated with a BA from Nebraska Wesleyan University in 1965 where he later taught and an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1973.
Before becoming a writer, Haruf worked in a variety of places, including a chicken farm in Colorado, a construction site in Wyoming, a rehabilitation hospital in Denver, a hospital in Phoenix, a presidential library in Iowa, an alternative high school in Wisconsin, as an English teacher with the Peace Corps in Turkey, and colleges in Nebraska and Illinois. He currently lives with his wife, Cathy, in Salida, Colorado, and has three daughters.
All Haruf's novels take place in the fictional town of Holt, in eastern Colorado. Holt is based on Yuma, Colorado, one of Haruf's residences in the early 80s. His first novel, The Tie That Binds (1984), received a Whiting Foundation Award and a special Hemingway Foundation/PEN citation. Where You Once Belonged followed in 1990. A number of his short stories have appeared in literary magazines.
Plainsong was published in 1999 and became a U.S. bestseller. The New York Times called it "a novel so foursquare, so delicate and lovely, that it has the power to exalt the reader." Plainsong won the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award and the Maria Thomas Award in Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction.
Eventide, a sequel to Plainsong, was published in 2004. Library Journal described the writing as "honest storytelling that is compelling and rings true," but The New York Times saw it as a "repeat performance" and "too goodhearted."
Haruf was awarded the Dos Passos Prize for Literature in 2006.