Tess Gallagher was born Tess Bond, the oldest of five children. Her father worked as a logger, and her mother was a homemaker. Gallagher went to the University of Washington in Seattle, where she studied under poet Theodore Roethke the semester before he died. Gallagher worked three jobs to fund her college education, a sacrifice that ultimately exhausted her to the point that she dropped out before earning a degree. In 1963, she married Lawrence Gallagher. When he left for Vietnam, Gallagher realized that, despite being raised to think that a woman should marry and have children, she wanted to be an artist and needed solitude to achieve her goal. By the time her husband returned, “something [had] penetrated the dream of our lives. . . . [I]t had somehow vanished, the idea of having children.” They were divorced in 1968. She married Michael Burkard in 1973; they were divorced in 1977. Later, she met writer Raymond Carver, with whom she lived for eleven years. They married two months before his death, a death that resulted in some of her best work.
Gallagher eventually completed both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree at the University of Washington. She entered the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was awarded a master of fine arts degree from the University of Iowa in 1974. To support her writing, Gallagher held academic positions at St. Lawrence University (1974-1975), Kirkland College in New York (1975-1977), the University of Montana (1977-1979), and the University of Arizona (1979-1980). From 1980 to 1990, she was associate professor of English and coordinator of the creative writing program at Syracuse University. She also briefly taught at Willamette University in 1981. A new development in her poetry, one she did not feel she could communicate to her students, plus a need for more solitude for reading and writing impelled Gallagher to relinquish her tenure at Syracuse and live on savings until a three-year Lyndhurst grant enabled her to write the stories of At the Owl Woman Saloon. From 1996 to 1997, Gallagher was the Edward F. Arnold Visiting Professor of English at Whitman College, and in 1998, she was poet-in-residence at Bucknell University. She was honored as a distinguished alumna at the University of Washington.