She graduated from Wellesley College with a B.A. in English literature in 1966. After a brief time in the publishing industry, she moved to Hinesburg, Vermont to raise her daughter. According to Ms. Alther, she wrote two novels, a host of short stories, and received "hundreds of rejection slips" between age 16 and 30, before Kinflicks was accepted for publication.
Alther is the author of six novels, Kinflicks, Original Sins, Other Women, Bedrock, Five Minutes In Heaven, and Washed in the Blood, as well as a small number of published short stories and many magazine articles.
She has also written two non-fiction books, Kinfolks: Falling Off the Family Tree—the Search for My Melungeon Ancestors (2007; ISBN 1-55970-832-8) and Blood Feud: The Hatfields and the McCoys: The Epic Story of Murder and Vengeance (2012; ISBN 978-0762779185).