She was born as the second child of a family with three children on 12 January 1931 in İstanbul. She completed her primary school education in Esma Sultan and her middle school education in Beşiktaş Second Girls’ Middle School. She started studying in Beyoğlu Girls’ High School, but was transferred to Kadıköy Girls’ High School. She published her first poems in a country journal when she was a student in high school (1945). She graduated from Kadıköy Girls’ High School in 1950 and started studying in the Department of English Philology in the Faculty of Literature, İstanbul University. She took a break from her university education when she married to Circassian Reşit’s son Aytek Şay (1951), but this marriage did not last long. When she was a student she worked as a secretary in Scandinavian Airways (1953), met her second husband, Mehmet Erbil there, gave another break to her education when she was in her last year of university and in six-seven months she married to Mehmet Bey who was an engineer msc (13 May 1955) and moved to Ankara.
Having written many stories at the time but never found the courage to publish her works, she read one of her stories to her close friend Metin Eloğlu. Loving the story, Eloğlu wants it to be published, titles the story as “Without Struggle” and sent it to Salim Şengil with
his own pattern design. “Without Struggle” was published in the journal Chosen Stories in 1956. Following the first publication, Erbil’s short stories and articles were published in many journals such as Ataç, Dost, Dönem, Kitap-lık, Papirüs, Türk Dili, Türkiye Defteri, Yeditepe, Yelken, Yeni a, Yeni Dergi, Yeni Ufuklar. After living in Ankara for two years, the coupled moved to İzmir in 1957.
Her first short story collection Carder was published by Dost publishing house in 1960. In the same year, her daughter Fatoş Erbil was born. The family moved to Teşvikiye, İstanbul. Leyla Erbil became a member of Turkey Workers’ Party which was founded in 1961 and worked for the arts and culture Office of the party. She went to Zurich in 1967, stayed there for a year and worked as a clerk in the consulate. When she returned to İstanbul she worked as a translator and secretary and became a member of administrative board of Writers’ Association.
She published her second short story collection At Night (1968) herself with the help of Nurer Uğurlu and Metin Eloğlu and sent the book to Sait Faik Short Story Competition, but the award was shared between Orhan Kemal and Faik Baysal that year. In 1969, she gather with her friends Hayati Asılyazıcı, Naci Çelik, Selim İleri, Demir Özlü and Fikret Ürgüp in front of Sait Faik’s grave and decided not to attend to the competition again. Accordingly, Leyla Erbil never sends her works to Sait Faik Short Story Competition again.
On 8 December 1969 Erbil’s father Hasan Tahsin died from cirrhosis when he was 74. In 1970, Erbil became one of the founding members of Turkey Artists’ Foundation whose chairman was Orhon Murat Aruburnu for two years (1970-1972) an whose secretary general was Aydın Hatipoğlu. In 1971, her first novel A Strange Woman was published by Habora Publishing. The book was criticised by conservatives and caused gossips due to its taboobreaking content. Erbil was one of the founding members of Writers’ Union in 1974 and prepared the constitution of the union with Asım Bezirci and her other friends following Aziz Nesin’s suggestion. Her third book, Ex Love was published by Cem Publishing in 1977. In 1980-1981 the author’s mother, Emine Huriye Hanim was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and was treated in Geriatri Hospital in Göztepe. Erbil defines her mother’s disease as one that “turned my life upside down”. She lost her mother on 6 December 1984.
While her autobiographical novel The Diary of Darkness which was published by Adam Publishing in 1985 depicts her years in the hospital with her mother, her short story “Dotard” in Ex Love gives the first clues of her mother’s coming disease. Since her third novel, Letter Loves in which she analysed different dimensions of the morals of love was lost in its publication process, she rewrote the last forty pages of the novel and the book was published by Can Publishing in 1988.
Following Tezer Özlü’s will, she published the letters she received from Özlü whom she lost in 1986, under the title Letters from Tezer Özlü to Leyla Erbil. The book was published by Yapı Kredi Publishing in 1995. In the same year, when her close friend, short story writer, poet, essayist and film-maker Onat Kutlar was killed in a bomb attack on 11 January, Erbil was devastated.
The author adopted an exemplary intellectual manner against the F-type prisons and the death fast in 1996. She wrote a declaration on the 69th day of the death fast (27 July) and the declaration was signed by many writers and poets. These artists decided to go to the
Beyoğlu Office of Freedom and Solidarity Party (ÖDP) and stay there until the death fast ends.
Her essay collection Birds of Mind was published by Yapı Kredi Publishing in 1998. The book consists of her published essays since 1954, her three unpublished essays and an interview. In the essays, her attitude towards writing, plagiarism in literature, media, freedom of thoughts, women’s position, love and sexuality proves her to be a sensitive writer in social and political issues.
She was an mp candidate of ÖDP in the elections of 18 April 1999. But Erbil explained that she became a candidate knowing that she would not be elected, and even if she did, she would quit right away. Shortly after the election, Erbil left the party for not supporting all of its ideals.
In 2000, her sister Mürvet (Bilgin) died from cancer. In 2001, her last novel, The Dwarf, was published by Yapı Kredi Publishing with
Mustafa Horasan’s drawings. In 2002 Erbil was nominated as a candidate for Nobel Literature Prize by Turkey PEN for “her mastery in Turkish language and literature, her unique world that creates in her works through her creative language and the universality of this world, her contribution to arts and also her sensitive intellectual manners for ordinary people, life and world.” This made her the first woman candidate for Nobel.
Her book which consists of her short stories and her works that do not belong to any specific genre, Dragon with Three Heads was published by Okuyan-Us in December 2005. Her novel, A Strange Woman was translated into German by AngelikaGillitz-Acar and Angelika Hoch and was published in the Turkish Library series of Unionsverlag as Eine Seltsame Frau.
Her last book The Rest, an example of prose poetry was published by Türkiye İş Bankası Kültür Publishing in 2011.
She was diagnosed with langerhans cell histiocytosis in 2005 but she was treated largely in 2007. She lives in Teşvikiye with her husband Mehmet Erbil and spends her time when she does not write, with her friends or reading.