Donald Barthelme, author of short fiction and novels, was born on April 7, 1931, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Helen (Bechtold) and Donald Barthelme, Sr., a professor at the University of Houston. He attended parochial schools and was raised as a Catholic. While in school he served as editor of a variety of school newspapers. He entered the University of Houston in 1949 and worked on a journalism degree sporadically through 1957. There he edited the college paper, the Cougar; worked for a news service, edited the faculty newspaper, Acta Diurna, and founded Forum, a university literary magazine. He was drafted into the army in 1953 and served in Fort Polk, Louisiana, Japan, and Korea. In 1955–56 he worked for the Houston Post as an entertainment editor and critic.
He served as the director of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston in 1961–62. In 1963 he moved to Manhattan, New York, where he began his writing career as managing editor of Location. He published his first story in 1961 in the New Yorker and his first novel, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, in 1964. In 1966 he received a Guggenheim fellowship and continued to receive honors throughout his years in New York. By the time he returned to Houston in the early 1980s he had published more books, including Snow White (1967), City Life (1970), The Dead Father (1975), Amateurs (1976), and several other short story collections.
He began teaching creative writing at the University of Houston in the early 1980s and was an important influence on his students. At his death, on July 23, 1989, in Houston he had written fifteen books; The King was published posthumously in 1990. In addition Barthelme had contributed many stories to the New Yorker. He won a National Book Award in 1972 for a children's book, The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine (1971), and a PEN/Faulkner Award in 1982 for Sixty Stories (1981). He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Authors League of America, and PEN.