Kai Bird: We live in a very dangerous time

Kai Bird Photo: Nepal Literature Festival
Kai Bird Photo: Nepal Literature Festival

With the release of Oppenheimer, American author Kai Bird once again stepped into the limelight. The movie, directed by Christopher Nolan, was adapted from Bird’s book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer and became a global hit, collecting over USD 950 million at the global box office.

The movie has also been nominated in 13 different categories for this year’s Oscars.

Known for his nuanced narratives and detailed research, Kai Bird has crafted several award-winning works including The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames. His writing mostly focuses on notable figures and tells stories from the past with broader historical contexts. Kai Bird’s storytelling and nuanced reporting have captivated many readers for many years.

Kai Bird is currently in Nepal to participate in the 11th edition of the Nepal Literature Festival. During the festival, Bird spoke about Robert Oppenheimer, his love for biographies and its role in telling historical narratives.


In the American Prometheus, you talk about the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the world, do you think your book is relevant to small countries like Nepal which is far off from being a nuclear power any time soon? 

Yes, absolutely. The book came out in 2005, but the movie by Christopher Nolan has given it a second life and an international following. Here in Nepal, your neighbours India, China and Pakistan indeed have dangerous nuclear weapons. 

Currently, countries like North Korea, Pakistan, India, Israel, France and England have dangerous weapons. We live in a very dangerous time. I am thankful to Christopher Nolan for making the movie and drawing attention to such an important issue.

You were once a journalist and then switched to becoming a biographer. What drew you to biography?

Yes, I started as a journalist in South Asia, writing for the Far East Economic Review, a magazine based in Hong Kong. I drifted into biography almost by accident. I decided to write a book and it became a biography. I fell in love with the genre.

Biography is the most powerful vehicle for conveying history. History books are okay, but a biography, if written well, can be a page-turner. It’s about one life and we all are curious about one’s life and journey. 

I argue biography is also the most arduous scholarship because it is an endless quest for facts about another person’s life. I would confess it is almost novelistic. 

My biography on Robert Oppenheimer is my take on his life but it is written with hundreds of footnotes. Each fact has to have footnotes. Most biographies take at least five years to be completed. But if done well, they became like a novel. 

L-R Kunda Dixit and Kai Bird Photo: Nepal Literature Festival
L-R Kunda Dixit and Kai Bird Photo: Nepal Literature Festival

Why Oppenheimer? You had a co-author as well. Was he already working on the book and did you tag along? What was the process like?

Yes, I just tagged along. Martin J. Sherwin is no longer with us. He died in October 2021, just two weeks after learning Christopher Nolan would finally make a film. Martin started the book in 1980 and he spent 20 years researching. Then he came to me and asked me to join. 

He has some biographer disease in which you can’t start to write because you know there is always one more archive and interview to be done. But when I joined it turned out as a great collaboration. It still took five years of my time to take the book into publication. 

What fascinates you about Robert Oppenheimer?

Oppie was his nickname and he was a complex person. He was a quantum physicist in his early 20s. We argued in the book that he is a good scientist because he was humanous, and he loved literature and poetry. He loved the poem of T.S Elliot, John Donne. He loved the novel by Ernest Hemingway.  In the late 30s, he became curious about Hindu scripture. He learned Sanskrit so that he could learn Bhagavad Gita in the original script. 

I could talk about Robert for hours. He is of course the father of the atomic bomb. But there is more to him than just that.

Kai Bird Photo: Nepal Literature Festival
Kai Bird Photo: Nepal Literature Festival

The book and movie do not address the victims of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The movie has not been shown in Japan yet. What do you have to say about it?

I think it is about to. It took about seven to eight months. I think there was hesitancy since it carries a sensitive subject. In the book, we described what happened on the ground. We think almost a quarter million died by the two bombs. Most of them were civilians. In the movies, you do not see what happens on the ground. But I think Nolan did something even better in a way because he forced the audience to see Oppenheimer, imagining the destruction of Hiroshima. The movie compelled everyone in the audience to imagine for themselves what happened. 

Extracted from a session titled From Bestseller to Blockbuster: The Oppenheimer Story, during the Nepal Literature Festival, Lakeside, Pokhara. 

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