Stern was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1947, the son of a grocer. He left Memphis in the 1960s to attend college, then to travel the US and Europe — living, as he told one interviewer, "the wayward life of my generation for about a decade," and ending on a hippie commune in the Ozarks. He went on to study writing in the graduate program at the University of Arkansas, at a time when it included several notable writers who've since become prominent, including poet C.D. Wright and fiction writers Ellen Gilchrist, Lewis Nordan, Lee K. Abbott and Jack Butler.
Stern subsequently moved to London, England, before returning to Memphis in his thirties to accept a job at a local folklore center. There he learned about the city's old Jewish ghetto, The Pinch, and began to steep himself in Yiddish folklore. He published his first book, the story collection Isaac and the Undertaker's Daughter, which was based in The Pinch, in 1983. It won the Pushcart Writers' Choice Award and acclaim from some notable critics, including Susan Sontag, who praised the book's "brio ... whiplash sentences ... energy and charm," and observed that "Steve Stern may be a late practitioner of the genre" of Yiddish folklore, "but he is an expert one."
By decade's end Stern had won the O. Henry Award, two Pushcart Prize awards, published more collections, including Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven (which won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction) and the novel Harry Kaplan's Adventures Underground, and was being hailed by critics, such as Cynthia Ozick, as the successor to Isaac Bashevis Singer. Stern's 2000 collection The Wedding Jester won the National Jewish Book Award in 1999, and his novel The Angel of Forgetfulness was named one of the best books of 2005 by The Washington Post.
Stern, who teaches at Skidmore College, has also won some notable scholarly awards, including a Fulbright fellowships and the Guggenheim foundations Fellowship. He currently lives in Ballston Spa, New York, and his latest work, the novel The Naughty Professor, was published in The Pinch 2015.
- Isaac and the Undertaker's Daughter (Lost Roads Publishers, 1983)
- The Moon & Ruben Shein (August House, 1984)
- Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven (Viking, 1986)
- Mickey and the Golem (St. Lukes Press, 1986) (children's book)
- Hershel and the Beast (Ion Books, 1987) (children's book)
- Harry Kaplan's Adventures Under Ground (Ticknor & Fields, 1991)
- A Plague of Dreamers: Three Novellas (Scribner's, 1994)
- The Wedding Jester (Graywolf Press, 1999)
- The Angel of Forgetfulness (Viking, 2006)
- The North of God (Melville House Publishing, 2008) ISBN 978-1-933633-56-5
- The Frozen Rabbi (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010)
- The Book of Mischief (Graywolf Press, 2012)
- The Pinch (Graywolf Press, 2015)
- Stern bio Archived 2011-06-09 at Archive.today, The Arkansas Programs in Creative Writing and Translation: Alumni.
- "Past Winners". Jewish Book Council. Retrieved 2020-01-20.
- "Book World Raves: The best books of 2005, brought to you by our extraordinarily diverse band of reviewers," Washington Post (December 4, 2005).
- Fishman, Boris (17 July 2015). "World of OUr Authors". New York Times. Retrieved 20 July 2015.
- Audio: Steve Stern at the Key West Literary Seminar, 2007
- "Dybuks in Dixie". Profile of Steve Stern from The New York Times, March 1, 1987
- "Tugging at Jewish Weeds: An interview with Steve Stern". from MELUS, the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, Spring 2007
- "Journeying to the Other Side: A Q & A with Steve Stern" in The Jewish Forward, May 29, 2008
- "The Angel of Forgetfulness". Michael Dirda on Steve Stern in The Washington Post, April 3, 2005
- "He's a Literary Darling Looking for Dear Readers", a profile of Steve Stern from The New York Times, April 25, 2005