Elizabeth Ann Tallent was born on August 8, 1954, in Washington, D.C., where her father worked for the government as an expert on agriculture. She grew up mostly in various areas of the Midwest, receiving a B.A. degree in anthropology at Illinois State University at Normal in 1975. Although accepted for graduate school in anthropology at the University of New Mexico at Taos, Tallent and her husband settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico, instead.
Her first story, “Ice,” published in The New Yorker in 1980, received enough attention that Leonard Michaels invited her to a writers’ workshop in Berkeley, California. She gave readings with the important fiction trio, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and Tobias Wolff throughout England in 1985. The next year she taught writing at the University of California at Irvine and then the following year at the University of Nevada at Reno. In 1989, she was invited to teach in the prestigious University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She accepted a full-time teaching position at the University of California at Davis in 1990.