David Guterson was born in Seattle, Washington, on May 4, 1956, to Murray Guterson, a criminal defense trial lawyer, and Shirley Zak Guterson. As a child he spent a lot of time outdoors, and his writing is full of the woods and mountains he enjoyed. He attended the University of Washington in 1974 as an English major. He graduated in 1978 with a B.A. In English and married Robin Ann Radwick, his high school sweetheart, in 1979. Guterson had been writing short stories as an undergraduate and enrolled in a creative writing master's program at Brown University, but it was too experimental, so he returned to the University of Washington. Guterson did not like the prevailing ideas about postmodern art and wanted to write stories with a moral dimension so he could make a social contribution as his father had in his law career. His father was the model for Nels Gudmundsson in Snow Falling on Cedars.
Guterson finished his M.A. in creative writing in 1982, and with their newborn son, the Gutersons drove around Europe in a Volkswagen van. In 1984, their second child was born, and the family moved to Bainbridge Island (the model for San Piedro) where Guterson became a high school English teacher and continued his writing. Two more children were born in 1986 and 1993. In 1989 a collection of his best stories was published as a book, The Country Ahead of Us, The Country Behind.
Guterson is also successful in writing nonfiction, including many articles on travel and environmental issues. He and his wife home-schooled their four children, leading to the book, Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense (1992). With Snow Falling on Cedars (1994) Guterson achieved fame. It became number one on the New York Times best-seller list and was made into a 1999 film. His descriptions of Bainbridge Island as San Piedro are rich, detailed, and lyrical. His addressing of racism, the horror of war, and family life display his interest in using literature for human solidarity as the great classics have always done by telling moving stories. He won a PEN/Faulkner Award and the American Booksellers Book of the Year Award for this novel.
East of the Mountains (1999) has to do with the Columbia River Basin where Guterson had spent time hunting. Our Lady of the Forest (2003) is about a Washington logging community and a young girl who has visions of the Virgin Mary. Guterson sets his next novel, The Other (2008) in the Seattle of the 1970s, describing a male friendship. Ed King (2011) is a retelling of the Greek story of Oedipus in contemporary Seattle. Guterson clearly defines himself as a traditional storyteller rather than an experimentalist, interested in place, the presence of nature, and characters who make moral decisions.
This region, together with the Columbia River basin, where Guterson spent time in his twenties hunting and exploring, later provided the setting for the fictional hunting trip of Ben Givens, the protagonist of Guterson's 1999 novel, East of the Mountains.