Van Kirk grew up in suburban New Jersey. He attended Webster College (now Webster University) in St. Louis. He was then accepted to Washington University's PhD program in Philosophy, where he remained for three semesters and served as a teaching assistant to William H. Gass. He left Washington University in 1977, without completing his degree. During 1978 and 1979, Van Kirk worked variously as a waiter, bartender, laborer, and carpenter.
Van Kirk joined the U.S. Navy in January of 1980. He completed Aviation Officer's Candidate School in Pensacola, FL and was commissioned in May of that year. In 1981 he graduated from flight school and was designated a Naval Aviator. He served for three years as a helicopter pilot in Helicopter Antisubmarine Squadron 7 (HS-7), based in Jacksonville, FL, flying the SH-3 Sea King and participated in two lengthy deployments aboard the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy (CV-67). Van Kirk was selected for the navy's Personnel Exchange Program, and after language training at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA, he was posted to Puerto Cabello, Venezuela for two years, where he flew the Augusta-Bell 212 with La Aviacion Naval de Venezuela. Van Kirk completed his naval service in 1988, as a recruiter for the Navy Medical Programs in Hyattsville, MD.
In 1989 Van Kirk was accepted into the MFA Program at the University of Maryland, where he studied with Joyce Kornblatt, Howard Norman, and Stanley Plumly and completed his degree in 1991. After two years of traveling, Van Kirk began his teaching career at Marshall University in Huntington, WV, where he has taught for the last eighteen years.
Van Kirk's short stories have earned him the O. Henry Award (1993) and The Iowa Review Fiction Prize (2011). Van Kirk's work has been published in the following magazines and journals: Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, The Hudson Review, The Iowa Review, Kestrel: a Journal of Literature and Art, The New York Times Magazine, Paragraph, Sonora Review, and West Branch. His stories and poems have been anthologized in Bless Me Father: Stories of Catholic Childhood; Made in North America: Contemporary Short Stories; Prize Stories 1993: The O. Henry Awards; Wild Sweet Notes II: More Great Poetry from West Virginia; and Writes of Passage: Coming-of-Age Stories and Memoirs from The Hudson Review. His novel, Song for Chance, will be published by Red Hen Press in 2013.