Alice Birch is Emmy-Nominated for her work co-writing Hulu‘s Normal People. In an interview with Awards Daily‘s Shadan Larki, Birch discusses working alongside author Sally Rooney to adapt her beloved novel for the small screen.
Alice Birch is a lauded, award-winning playwright ([BLANK]) and screenwriter (2016’s Lady Macbeth). She’s also a newly minted Emmy nominee, earning her first nomination for co-writing the third episode of the Hulu limited series Normal People. Birch worked closely with Sally Rooney [with whom she shares the nomination] to adapt Rooney’s 2017 novel. Birch’s writing credits stretch across all 12 episodes—a nuanced, devastating story of miscommunication, exploration, and coming-of-age. Birch is a master of language creating an adaptation that both honors the source material and stands on its own merit as one of the landmark love stories of our generation.
Awards Daily: Normal People is such an internal, quiet novel. I wanted to first ask you about the challenges of that and how you went about translating those moments for the script.
Alice Birch: Sure. I think that certainly felt like, initially, the biggest challenge— how to preserve that. And that was something I definitely loved when I read the novel — how to keep that and not suddenly make something that felt didactic or have the characters suddenly talking in a way that just felt really untruthful.
And so much of the novel is about miscommunication and these deeply intense teenage feelings— it felt like we could allow the quiet. Certainly, [directors] Lenny Abrahamson [a fellow Emmy nominee] and Hettie Macdonald kept things close to the character’s faces, maintaining that feeling as opposed to feeling like we had to explain everything. I think relying on those directors and then being very lucky with those two brilliant, essential actors [Daisy Edgar-Jones and Emmy nominee Paul Mescal] doing so much of the work for us.
AD: So much of the discussion around Normal People has been centered around the intimacy of it and the different ways that intimacy is explored, whether it is physically or otherwise. Can you talk to me about depicting those moments and relationships through the writing?
AB: I mean, their physical relationship and the sexual relationship felt so integral and was so beautifully written in the novel — it was specific, and different each time. It was really important that those moments were never there as a place holder for something else. It was about a different kind of communication between the two of them. It was about making it really, really specific. Both in literally what they’re doing, but also in the rhythm of the episodes. I think that felt really supported across the whole production like having a brilliant intimacy coordinator [Ita O’Brien]. That was always part of the conversation, not in a separate way, and just really baked into the whole conversation.
AD: What was it like for you to come in and work with Sally Rooney on her novel’s adaptation?
AB: Sally is a rare and wonderful thing in that she’s a very open and generous collaborator. I think she understood that this was a different thing to her novel and that her novel will always exist as its own thing. It’s beautiful and will always be picked up and loved, but we have to have a reason to make it.
She’s also a really brilliant screenwriter, which I think isn’t necessarily always the case. She was open and generous, but also very clear and a really, really wonderful collaborator.
AD: You have tremendous experience as a playwright and working in theater. Did the close nature of theater lend itself to adapting a novel like Normal People?
AB: I mean, I hope so. I’m certainly so interested in language and it always comes back to that. And, certainly, the conversations that I had with Sally and with Lenny and Hettie, were always very specific and about being specific with the language and making sure that everyone always has a reason to speak. So that felt similar to my work in theater. But, it feels like a different muscle. It feels like it comes from a slightly different place, a different exercise.
And certainly adapting someone else’s work as opposed to inventing something of my own in the middle of the night is different. [Laughs].
AD: We’re several months removed from the premiere of the show. And, of course, for you, it’s been much longer. Has that time removed from the intimate process of writing changed your view in any way or allowed you to reflect on the show differently than you had before?
AB: Hmm, I don’t know. I find writing to be a very private and solitary thing. Even co-writing. And even when you’re making something that requires so many other people to come in. It’s still, when I sit down to write, it’s just me, my laptop, or a piece of paper. I think that’s a good thing. I think it means that I’m always really focused on the work. And then when I looked up and saw it, and also saw that people were enjoying it —that was a lovely surprise, I wasn’t focused on that bit, but it feels like the thing we were all working towards. It feels like everyone was focused on the same thing and it came out really as well as I could have imagined it.
AD: You know, I had the opportunity to interview the cast and the crew of Normal People and I’m so grateful because it gave me such a beautiful perspective on the show. I spoke to producer Ed Guiney, and he said something to me that I still think about —he said that ultimately, Normal People is a story about kindness. I had to ask you about that —what do you think that the story is ultimately about? What were you trying to convey through the writing?
AB: I mean, I think that’s really beautiful. If I can steal Ed’s answer, I’d really love to! I’m lucky to write so many of the episodes and for the most part, I was just following the characters and trying to be faithful to Sally’s book.
I think it’s about a really universal experience of falling in love for the first time and the enormity of that. These two young people are extraordinary and have the most extraordinary version of that. I think we were trying to really capture the delicacy of that and the vulnerability of love and the pain as well. I think that’s beautiful.
AB: Yeah. I mean, we’ve been working on it for a couple of years — Rachel and I, and the brilliant people at Annapurna. Rachel, I think, has been really interested in the  David Cronenberg film for a long time. I think she’s always looking for interesting female relationships to be at the heart of the story.
We’ve been developing it, and I mean, there’s so much great DNA in that film that we’re kind of rummaging around in— fertility, women’s health, motherhood, and medical ethics. It’s a beautifully profound project.
Alice Birch is Emmy-nominated in the Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special category. Normal People is available to stream on Hulu.