Sylvan Nathan Karchmer was born in Dallas, Texas, on December 31, 1911. After graduating from high school, he worked for the petroleum industry until 1942, when he served as an enlisted man in World War II and was posted to North Africa and Italy. In 1947, Karchmer began his undergraduate degree at the University of Texas and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1949 and Master of Fine Arts in 1950. Karchmer studied Playwriting under Dr. E.P. Conkle. His master's thesis was the writing and production of a full-length play, Stranger upon Earth. During his time as a student, Karchmer wrote several short stories and had many published in principal little magazines. In Best American Short Stories of 1951, five of his stories were judged "distinctive." Upon graduation he was eager to find a teaching position that would allow him time to write. He accepted a teaching position at the University of Oregon, teaching playwriting and creative writing. He rose from the rank of instructor to full professor during his 17 year tenure and was Head of the Creative Writing Division. He was writer in residence at Viterbo College, Wisconsin (1970-1971), and taught playwriting and short story writing at Banff School of Fine Arts in Canada. One of his plays, The Tooth of the Lion, won the Charles Sergel Prize at the University of Chicago in 1953. Productions of his plays Vain Empire and A Little Winter Love were performed at Stephens College, Missouri in 1957 and University of Nebraska in 1961. His short stories appeared in numerous publications, including Antioch Review, Southwest Review, Esquire, Western Review, Prairie Schooner, University of Kansas City Review, Arizona Review, Colorado Quarterly, Opinion, Kansas Quarterly. Several stories have been reprinted in anthologies such as Best American Short Stories, 21 Texas Stories, College Years, and These Your Children. Karchmer also wrote and published several short stories under his pseudonym Lee Brian.
Karchmer always considered Texas his home and returned to teach Creative Writing at the University of Houston in 1967 and to serve as the Fiction Editor of Forum from 1971-1980. Sylvan Karchmer died on July 24, 1991, at the age of 79.