Heiney was born in South Pasadena, California, and grew up in South Pasadena and San Gabriel. He served in the Merchant Marine and the Navy during World War II and afterward earned a B.A. from University of Redlands. He joined the faculty of University of California, Irvine in 1965 and later co-founded UCI's writing program. One of his students was Michael Chabon, who later won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Some of his distinguished colleagues were novelist Oakley Hall, Victorian scholar and Poet Robert Peters, and Literary Critic Hillis Miller.
Publishers Weekly has described his work as "known for...metaphysics, hints of magic and the absurd, and a profound preoccupation with the duality of human nature," and the Chicago Tribune Book World called him "a gifted craftsman, a meticulous writer whose powers as a story teller are as compelling as the sexual tensions he imagines."
His novel The Balloonist, published in 1976 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, tells the story of a polar expedition, similar to and possibly inspired by the real journey made by S. A. Andrée. The Balloonist was nominated for the National Book Award in 1977. It was reissued in 2011 by the UK publisher Galileo and in 2012 in the United States by The Overlook Press, with a foreword by Philip Pullman and positive reviews from The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.
He received a 1982 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for his entire body of work. In 1985 his novel Tenth earned him a Special Achievement Award from the PEN Los Angeles Center.
Fiction by MacDonald Harris:
- 1961 Private Demons. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
- 1964 Mortal Leap. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. Also London: Michael Joseph Ltd, 1964.
- 1968 Trepleff. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd. Also New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1969.
- 1973 Bull Fire. New York: Random House. Also London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1973.
- 1976 The Balloonist. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Also London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1977.
- 1977 Yukiko. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, Inc. Also London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1978.
- 1979 Pandora's Galley. New York: Harcourt Brace & Jovanovich, Inc. Also London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1980.
- 1980 The Treasure of Sainte Foy. New York: Atheneum Publishers. Also London, Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1980.
- 1981 Herma. New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1981. Also London: Jonathan Cape, 1983.
- 1982 Screenplay. New York: Atheneum Publishers. Also London: Jonathan Cape, 1983.
- 1984 Tenth. New York: Atheneum Publishers.
- 1986 The Little People. New York: William Morrow & Co., Inc.
- 1987 Glowstone. New York: William Morrow & Co., Inc.
- 1988 The Cathay Stories and other Fictions. (Short Story Collection). Santa Cruz: Story Line Press.
- 1990 Hemingway's Suitcase. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- 1991 Glad Rags. Brownsville, Oregon: Story Line Press.
- 1993 Portrait of My Desire. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- 2012 The Carp Castle. London: Galileo Publishers.
- McLellan, Dennis (August 1, 1993). "Donald Heiney; Author and Founder of UCI Writing Program (obituary)". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 14, 2010.
- "1977: The Balloonist, by MacDonald Harris". National Book Foundation. Retrieved January 11, 2013.
- Chris Ross (November 8, 2011). "The Balloonist by MacDonald Harris - review". The Guardian. Retrieved January 11, 2013.
- Karin Altenberg (October 26, 2012). "Floating Into the Abyss". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved January 11, 2013.
- Michael Dirda (January 9, 2012). "Book review: ‘The Balloonist’ by MacDonald Harris". The Washington Post. Retrieved January 11, 2013.
- William Grimes (July 27, 1993). "MacDonald Harris Is Dead at 71; Novelist and Literature Professor". New York Times. Retrieved January 11, 2013.
- University of Pennsylvania Department of Physics & Astronomy. "MacDonald Harris/Donald Heiney Publications". Retrieved April 11, 2014.
- MacDonald Harris/ Donald Heiney, an informational website maintained by Donald Heiney's son, Paul Heiney
- Guide to the Donald Heiney Papers. Special Collections and Archives, The UC Irvine Libraries, Irvine, California.