Rilla Askew was born in the Sans Bois Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma, where her family has lived for five generations. She graduated from the University of Tulsa in 1980 and went on to study creative writing at Brooklyn College, where she received her MFA in 1989.
Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of literary magazines, and her story "The Killing Blanket" was selected for Prize Stories 1993: The O. Henry Awards. Her collection of stories, Strange Business, received the Oklahoma Book Award in 1993. Askew's first novel, The Mercy Seat, was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award and received the Oklahoma Book Award and the Western Heritage Award in 1998. Her novel Fire in Beulah received the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and the Myers Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights.
She has taught creative writing at Brooklyn College, the University of Central Oklahoma, Syracuse University, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Askew is married to actor Paul Austin and they divide their time between Oklahoma, where she teaches spring semesters at the University of Oklahoma, and the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York.