Kercheval was born in Fontainebleau, France, to American parents. Raised in Cocoa, Florida, she attended Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida where she studied with Janet Burroway, David Kirby, and Jerome Stern. She received her Bachelor of Arts in History at the university in 1983.
Kercheval earned her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1986. She then taught at DePauw University in Indiana for a year.
Since 1987, she has been a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She was the founding director of the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing. She is the Zona Gale Professor of English and the current director of the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. She lives in Wisconsin with her husband, Dan, their two children, Max and Magda, and a rat terrier.The Dogeater (1987) (ISBN 0826206328)
The Museum of Happiness (1993) (ISBN 057119821X)
Building Fiction: How To Develop Plot and Structure (1997) (ISBN 1884910289)
Space: A Memoir (1998) (ISBN 1565121465)
World as Dictionary (1999) (ISBN 0887482856)
Dog Angel (2004) (ISBN 0822958406)
Chartreuse (2005) (ISBN 0975257390)
Film History as Train Wreck (2006)
The Alice Stories (2007) (ISBN 9780803211353 )
Cinema Muto (2009) (ISBN 9780809328956)
Brazil (2010) (ISBN 9781880834862)
My Life as a Silent Movie (2013) (ISBN 9780253010247)
Torres/Towers (2014) (ISBN 9789974719019)
Extranjera (2015) (ISBN 9789974719170) and (ISBN 9781944884147)
The invisible bridge = El puente invisible (2015) (ISBN 9780822963820)
América invertida: An Anthology of Emerging Uruguayan Poets (2016) (ISBN 9780826357250)
Tierra, cielo y agua: antología de poesía medio ambiental = Earth, water and sky: an anthology of environmental poetry (2016) (ISBN 9789974719422)
Kercheval's first published book was a collection of short stories named The Dogeater. The stories include The Dogeater, Underground Women, Willy, A Clean House, Tertiary Care, La Mort au Moyen Age, The History of the Church in America, and A History of Indiana. It is now out of print.
The short story The Dogeater is about an Igorrote man who lived in New Orleans. He was brought to the United States for the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.
Underground Women was expanded into Kercheval's later novel, The Museum of Happiness. Kercheval got the idea for Underground Women after seeing a woman collapse in a launderette during a trip to Paris.
Kercheval also composed a one-page short short story, Carpathia. Published in Chapter 11 of her textbook Building Fiction. It is the story of two passengers on board the Carpathia, the ship that rescued passengers from the Titanic.
The The Museum of Happiness is a story about a young widow and a half-Alsatian, half-German carnival worker as they fall in love in a 1929 Paris. A German translation was published by Wilhelm Heyne Verlag in 1997. It was reissued by the University of Wisconsin Press.
The Alice Stories is about a girl called Alice and her family. She falls in love with Anders Dahl, a Norwegian farmer. Then, their child Maude was born. The novel goes through her life and her biggest challenges.
My Life as a Silent Movie centers around the life of 42-year-old Emma, who flies to Paris after losing her husband and daughter in an auto accident. She then discovers that she has a twin brother whose existence she had not known about, and learns that her birth parents weren't the Americans who raised her, but a White Russian film star of the 1920s and a French Stalinist. The novel won the 2013 Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers.
Space is Kercheval's memoir about her childhood and the Space Race. It was published by Algonquin Books.
The writing textbook Building Fiction:How to Develop Plot and Structure was published in 1997, by Story Press, and reissued by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Press. It discusses sources for fiction, openings, points-of-view, characters and endings. It also discusses novels, novellas, novels-in-stories and short stories.
Kercheval has published three collections of poetry. The first was World as Dictionary, published by Carnegie Mellon University Press. The second, Dog Angel, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. The third, Cinema Muto was published by Southern Illinois University Press and is about the silent film era. She is also the author of two chapbooks: Chartreuse, published by Hollyridge Press, and Film History as a Train Wreck published by the Center for Book Arts in New York.
Since 2011 she has also been writing poems in Spanish which have appeared in literary magazines.
Kercheval has published translations from Spanish of the Uruguayan poets Circe Maia, Agustín Lucas, and Tatiana Oroño. She is editing a bilingual anthology titled América invertida: an anthology of younger Uruguayan poets.
Her memoir, Space, won the Alex Award from the American Library Association. The Dogeater won the Associated Writing Programs Award 1986 in Short Fiction. The Alice Stories won the Prairie Schooner Fiction Book Prize. Her novella, Brazil, was the winner of the Ruthanne Wiley Memorial Novella Contest. David Wojahn selected her poetry collection Cinema Muto for the Crab Orchard Open Selection Award. The 2006 Center for Book Arts Poetry Chapbook Prize, judged by Albert Goldbarth, was won by her chapbook, Film History as a Train Wreck.