Joining the Royal Air Force in 1946, Sillitoe was then posted to Malaya where he contracted Tuberculosis. Whilst hospitalised for treatment, he developed a taste for reading and writing, which he was to pursue on discharge in 1949.
Whilst living in Spain with his lover, American poet Ruth Fainlight, in 1955, Sillitoe commenced work on Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which was published in 1958. Influenced in part by the stripped down prose of Hemingway, the book attempts to convey the attitudes and situation of a young factory worker (Arthur Seaton) faced with the inevitable end of his youthful philandering. It was adapted as a film by Karel Reisz in 1960, with Albert Finney as Arthur Seaton.
His story The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, which concerns the rebellion of a borstal boy with a talent for running, won the Hawthornden Prize in 1959. It was also adapted into a film, this time directed by Tony Richardson, and starring Tom Courtenay (1962).
In 1990, he was awarded an honorary degree from Nottingham Trent University.
Sillitoe has written many more novels, and several volumes of poetry, listed below. His 1995 autobiography Life Without Armour was critically acclaimed on publication, and offers a view into his squalid childhood.