Nell Dunn was born in London on 9 June 1936, the youngest of two sisters. She was educated at a convent until the age of 14, when she left without taking any exams. Dunn once said to her father: ‘You should have given me a proper education! I can’t even spell!’ He replied: ‘But darling you are so wonderful and your spelling is so original!’ In 1957, she married Jeremy Sandford, who wrote Cathy Come Home, and two years later they moved to Battersea. There she worked in a sweet factory, had three sons and began writing short stories, which appeared in the New Statesman.
When the stories were collected as Up the Junction in 1963, they won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and were subsequently made into two films, one by Ken Loach. Talking to Women was Dunn’s second book, written ‘because I felt so lost, I wanted to know how other people were doing, and most of them were equally lost, really.’ In 1967 she published Poor Cow. ‘I don’t want to be down and out all the time,’ Joy, the main character, says, ‘I want – I don’t know what I do fucking want but I dream about driving a car, that I’m in this big car driving around.’ The novel was a bestseller and was made into a film by Ken Loach with Carol White and Terence Stamp.
In 1971 Dunn separated from Sandford, and in the 1970s wrote two more novels and began writing plays. In 1977, she met the American computer mathematician Dan Oestreicher – they would be together for 35 years and would spend every night together but maintain separate houses. Her second play, Steaming, set in a Turkish bath in London with an all female cast, opened at the Theatre Royal Stratford in 1981 before it transferred to the West End and Broadway. In 1985 Joseph Losey made it into a film – it would be his last – starring Vanessa Redgrave.
On the birth of her grandson Cato in 1991, Dunn made another book of conversations, this time on the subject of grandmothers, and in 1996, she returned to the character of Joy in the novel My Silver Shoes. In 2009, Oestreicher died of lung cancer and Dunn became a patron of Dignity in Dying, which campaigns for more choice and control over end of life decisions. She continued to write plays until Home Death in 2011. She lives in London, with her dachshunds Iris and Tulip.