Shirley Hazzard was born in Sydney and educated at Queenwood School for Girls in Mosman; she left the school in 1947 to with her parents, who were on diplomatic postings, and has lived overseas since that date. 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 (American biographer, translator, and Flaubert scholar), who died in 1994. She was based primarily in New York City from 2006, with some time in her residence in Capri.
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.
'The year is 1947. The great fire of the Second World War has convulsed Europe and Asia. In its wake, Aldred Leith, an acclaimed hero of the conflict, has spent two years in China at work on an account of world-transforming change there. Son of a famed and sexually ruthless novelist, Leith begins to resist his own self-sufficiency, nurtured by war. Peter Exley, another veteran and an art historian by training, is prosecuting war crimes committed by the Japanese. Both men have narrowly escaped death in battle, and Leith saved Exley's life. The men have maintained long-distance friendship in a postwar loneliness that haunts them both, and which has swallowed Exley whole. Now in their thirties, with their youth behind them and their world in ruins, both must invent the future and retrieve a private humanity.
'Arriving in Occupied Japan to record the effects of the bomb at Hiroshima, Leith meets Benedict and Helen Driscoll, the Australian son and daughter of a tyrannical medical administrator. Benedict, at twenty, is doomed by a rare degenerative disease. Helen, still younger, is inseparable from her brother. Precocious, brilliant, sensitive, at home in the books they read together, these two have been, in Leith's words, delivered by literature. The young people capture Leith's sympathy; indeed, he finds himself struggling with his attraction to this girl whose feelings are as intense as his own and from whom he will soon be fatefully parted.'