Shirley Hazzard was born and educated in Sydney, but travelled with her parents, who were on diplomatic postings, and has lived overseas since 1947. At the age of sixteen, while living in Hong Kong, she was engaged by the British Intelligence and involved in monitoring the Civil War in China 1947-1948. She since lived in New Zealand, Italy and the United States. After working as a clerical employee of the United Nations between 1952 and 1962, she became a vocal opponent of that institution, writing several books on its flaws including Defeat of an Ideal: A Study of the Self-Destruction of the United Nations (1973) and Countenance of Truth (1990).
In 1963, she married the writer Francis Steegmuller, who died in 1994.
Hazzard began writing short stories in the 1950s, publishing them in various magazines such as the New Yorker. Her first collection of stories, Cliffs of Fall, appeared in 1963 and in 1966 her collection, People in Glass Houses satirised the United Nations as The Organisation. Hazzard has written four novels, with Australia featuring only in The Transit of Venus (1980) and The Great Fire (2003), through the lives of her expatriate characters.
Now an American citizen, Hazzard has revisited Australia several times, writing of her travels for the New Yorker in January 1977 and publishing her 1984 Boyer lectures as Coming of Age in Australia (1985). She has also written a memoir of her friendship with Graham Greene: Green on Capri (2000).
In 2005 Shirley Hazzard was awarded the William Dean Howell's Medal from the US Academy of Arts and Letters. She was also honoured by the New York Public Library (on 14 November 2005) with a Library Lion Award.