Janet Frame was born in Dunedin. Her talent for writing emerged at a young age, with frequent publication of her poems in children's pages and on radio. She attended the University of Otago and trained as a teacher, but shortly after she abandoned the classroom in favour of writing. Around this time, she was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. Her first collection of short stories, The Lagoon, winning the Hubert Church Memorial Award, was written in 1946 but not published until 1952. Many of the stories in that volume are told from the point of view of children whose imaginative worlds are dismissed by socially conformist adults.
After having spent nearly a decade in and out of mental hospitals, in 1955 Frame accepted an invitation from Frank Sargeson to live in an old army hut in the garden of his Takapuna home. With his encouragement she wrote her first novel, Owls Do Cry (1957) and her literary career was launched. She travelled to Europe, and after examination by medical experts in London, her psychiatric diagnosis was overturned.
Her publishing career flourished through the early 1960s until the late 1980s. Her output was prolific, and her books were published internationally and were translated into many languages. In late 1963 Frame returned to live in New Zealand but she continued to travel widely, including to Menton, France where she was the 1974 Katherine Mansfield Fellow. Her international honours included foreign membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the 1989 Commonwealth Writer's Prize for The Carpathians. She was also several times rumoured to be a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature. She received two honorary doctorates and a medal from New Zealand universities. She was awarded the Inaugural $60,000 Prime Minister's Award for Literature in 2003.