The middle son of a Presbyterian minister, Hugh Fraser McDonald, and the Central Queensland historian, Dr Lorna McDonald, his childhood was spent in the NSW country towns of Bribbaree, Temora, and Bourke, before the family moved to Sydney. He attended The Scots College and the University of Sydney.
He was briefly a teacher, ABC producer, and publisher's editor in NSW, Tasmania, and Queensland, before moving to Canberra and taking up writing full-time in 1976, in order to complete his first novel, 1915. McDonald has since 1980 lived near Braidwood, NSW, apart from periods in Sydney and New Zealand.
His novels are 1915, Slipstream, Rough Wallaby, Water Man, The Slap, Mr Darwin's Shooter, The Ballad of Desmond Kale, and When Colts Ran. Non-fiction: Shearers' Motel and The Tree In Changing Light.
1915 won The Age Book of the Year in 1979 and the South Australian Biennial Literature Prize in 1980. In 1982 it was made into a seven-part ABC-TV television series. (Scripting: Peter Yeldham)
Shearers' Motel won the 1993 Banjo National Book Council Banjo Award for non-fiction. It was filmed as "Cross Turning Over" for ABC-TV in 1996 (Director: Robert Klenner)
McDonald was nominated for the Miles Franklin Award in 1994 for Water Man, and in 1999 for Mr Darwin's Shooter, which in that year won the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards, the Victorian Premier's Literary Award, the South Australian Premier's Awards, and the Adelaide Festival Book of the Year.
The Ballad of Desmond Kale won the Miles Franklin award in 2006 and the Adelaide Festival Prize for Fiction in 2008. McDonald won the O.Henry Prize in 2008 for "The Bullock Run" (story).
McDonald's eighth novel, "When Colts Ran", 2010, was shortlisted for the 2011 Miles Franklin Prize, the 2011 Victorian Premier's Prize, and the 2011 Prime Minister's Prize.
- 1915 (1979)
- Slipstream (1982)
- Melba (1988) (film novelisation)
- Rough Wallaby (1988)
- Flynn (1992) (film novelisation)
- Water Man (1993)
- The Slap (1996)
- Mr Darwin's Shooter (1998)
- The Ballad of Desmond Kale (2006)
- When Colts Ran (2010)
- Mike Willesee's Australians (1988)
- Reflecting Labour: Images of Myth and Origin Over 100 Years (1991)
- Shearers' Motel (1992)
- Australia's Flying Doctors (1994) (text for Richard Woldendorp photographs)
- The Tree in Changing Light (2001)
- Wool: The Australian Story (2003) (text for Richard Woldendorp photographs)
- Australia's Wild Places (2009) (text for National Library of Australia archival photographs)
- Citizens of Mist (1969)
- Airship (1975)
- The First Paperback Poets Anthology (1974)
- Gone Bush (1990)
- Melba (1988)
- Cross Turning Over (1995)