He lived most of his life in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He did not start to write until the 1960s but then produced more than 200 short stories and 21 novels, mostly at least nominally science fiction. His first published story was "Day of the Glacier" in The Original Science Fiction Stories (1960), and his first published novel was Past Master (1968).
Until 1971, Lafferty worked as an electrical engineer. After that, he spent his time writing until 1984, when he retired from that activity as well. Part of the reason for his retirement from writing was Alzheimer's Disease.
Little of Lafferty's writing is considered typical of the genre. His stories are more tall tale than traditional science fiction and are deeply influenced by his conservative Catholic beliefs. In any event, his writings, both topically and stylistically, are not easy to categorize. Plot is frequently secondary to anything else Lafferty does in his stories, which has caused him to have both a loyal cult following and readers who have given up attempting to read his work.
Lafferty received Hugo nominations for Past Master, "Continued on the Next Rock," "Sky," and "Eurema's Dam," the last of which won the Best Short Story Hugo in 1973 (shared with Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth's "The Meeting.")
He received Nebula nominations for "Slow Tuesday Night," Past Master, Fourth Mansions, "Continued on the Next Rock," and The Devil is Dead. He never received a Nebula Award.
His collection Lafferty in Orbit was nominated for a World Fantasy Award, and in 1990, Lafferty received a World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award.