Clavell was born in Sydney, Australia in 1924. His father was an officer in the Royal Navy, so Clavell was raised in many different places within the British Commonwealth. In 1940 he joined the British Royal Artillery and was sent to Malaysia to fight the Japanese. Wounded by machine gun fire, he was eventually captured and sent to a Japanese POW camp on Java. Later, he was transferred to Changi prison near Singapore, where he was one of only 10,000 survivors, out of an original 150,000 prisoners. His experiences there became the basis of his first novel, King Rat, published in 1962.
Prior to this, Clavell pursued a career as a screenwriter with an eye on becoming a director, achieving success in Hollywood with films such as The Fly and Watusi. He co-wrote and produced the classic film The Great Escape, which firmly established his reputation in Hollywood.
After publishing King Rat in 1962, Clavell returned to novels with Tai-Pan in 1966. Set during the founding period of Hong Kong in the 1840s, Tai-Pan became the model for Clavell's later novels, which involve a large number of characters and numerous loosely interwoven plots. Characters and families from one novel often appear in others, separated by as many as 400 years. Many of the novels follow the history of Strauns, a trading company, based on the actual company Jardine Matheson.
It may be said that the real protagonists in Clavell's novels are not the characters, but the time and place; the characters are the canvas on which Clavell illustrates a culture.
Clavell is considered among the first Western writers to portray Asian people as they see themselves, rather than viewing them through Western eyes. He is often held up as a model for multi-culturalists.