James Preston Girard was born in Oregon in 1944 while his father was stationed at the U.S. naval base in Tillamook. When he was less than a year old, his father was killed, and his mother moved the family back to Kansas. Girard's family moved in with his grandparents in Longton, Kansas, where both his parents had grown up. His mother eventually found a job at Boeing in Wichita, Kansas, and moved the family there.
Girard lived in Wichita until graduating from East High in 1962, despite a brief period in Corpus Christi, Texas. He enrolled at Kansas University in Lawrence, Kansas, where he planned to major in Linguistics.
Girard began writing seriously as an undergraduate at KU, first poetry and then fiction. His ability to write and the flattery from those around him, including his future wife, whom he met while at KU, led him to change his major to creative writing.
After graduating from KU, Girard was accepted to the John Hopkins graduate writing program. Their program consisted of writing for one year and then the awarding of an MA.