Ali Smith was born on August 24, 1962, in Inverness, Scotland, the youngest of five children of a working-class parents, Ann and Donald Smith. Her parents had both left school prematurely, thrust into the world of work by the death of their parents and a shortage of money. Her mother emigrated from the north coast of Northern Ireland and became a clippie on the buses up and down the Moray Firth; when she was old enough, she joined the WAAF where, one day, a pair of electricians came to rewire the bedrooms. One was Smith's father.
Her father founded a small contracting business, wiring up the houses that lined Loch Ness, including that of the writer of Ring of Bright Water, Gavin Maxwell. Deprived of education themselves, they determinedly steered their children towards university, with the professions firmly in mind; Smith was to be a lawyer. She wanted to study English; her parents didn't want her to.
Her siblings were quite a bit older than she was; this made her practically an only child. Still, she had what she describes as "an ideal childhood."
She currently lives in Cambridge.