Born in Honolulu, Hawai’i, Lorenzo DeStefano is a playwright, screenwriter, producer, director, and photographer. A member of the Directors Guild of America, he has produced and directed network series, documentaries, and narrative films, worked in U.S. and U.K. theater, and written fiction, non-fiction, original screenplays, and adaptations.
In addition to House Boy, his first published novel, DeStefano is author of the short story collection The Shakespearean, the essay “On Knowing Daniel Aaron,” the fact-based short story Hitchhike, the novella Conditaville, the memoir Visitations – Finding A Secret Relative In Modern-Day Hawaii, “Diary of a Nobody,” a feature article for The Guardian, the photographic memoir La Hora Magica/The Magic Hour – Portraits of a Vanishing Cuba, and the cinema memoir Callé Cero – An Encounter with Cuban Film Director Tomas Gutierrez Alea.
DeStefano’s screenplays include Shipment Day, The Diarist, Lads, Deep Inside, Cropper’s Cabin from the novel by Jim Thompson, Appointment in Samarra from the novel by John O’Hara, Waiting for Nothing from the novel by Tom Kromer, and Creeps from the play by David E. Freeman.
Narrative films for which DeStefano was a writer/producer include The Diarist, a limited series based on The Inman Diary published by Harvard University Press, and House Boy, a limited series adapted from his novel.
Narrative films for which DeStefano was a writer/producer/director include the 2022 short film Stairway to the Stars, starring Sean Young and Quinton Aaron, and Shipment Day, an upcoming adaptation of his prize-winning play.
His feature documentaries as producer/director include Talmage Farlow, a portrait of the American jazz guitarist, Los Zafiros-Music From the Edge of Time, about the Beatles of 1960s Cuba, and Hearing is Believing, about the gifted young musician and composer, Rachel Flowers.
DeStefano’s plays include House Boy, Shipment Day, Camera Obscura, Providence, and Stairway to the Stars.
DeStefano’s theater directing includes William Inge’s Natural Affection, Horton Foote’s The One-Armed Man, the world premiere of Robert Schenkkan’s Conversations with the Spanish Lady, the world premiere of Twisted Twain by Bill Erwin, Jitters by David French, and his own productions of Providence and Shipment Day.
DeStefano’s career in motion picture film editing includes The Blue Lagoon, Making Love, That Championship Season, Dreamscape, Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Thrashin’, Winners Take All, The Killing Time, and Gingerale Afternoon. He was Supervising Film Editor, Producer, and Director during the 4 season / 83 episode run of the acclaimed, Emmy-winning ABC/Warner Brothers drama series, Life Goes On.
DeStefano’s photography credits include Rest Homes Hawai’i, Leahi Hospital – Children’s Ward, Six Feet Under, and Queen of the Damned. His traveling exhibition, Cubanos-Island Portraits 1993-1998, shown extensively in Cuba, New York, Chicago, London, Havana, Los Angeles, and Vancouver, is in the Permanent Collection of the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California, and was acquired in 2022 by the Cuban Heritage Collection at the University of Miami.
Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?
House Boy evolved from a number of titles over the years. Under consideration at one time or another were “Serpentine,” “Finchley Lane,” “Finchley Dreams, and “Chetittpattu Dreams.”
House Boy eventually won out for its simplicity and clear-eyed description of the role the lead character, Vijay Pallan, plays in the particular drama in which he is engulfed.
How did it feel when you first saw your book cover? Or when you first held your book in your hands?
It felt good, like a threshold being passed and another phase beginning.
Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?
House Boy has been unlike any other writing adventure I have been on. I first encountered the true incident on which the book is based in 1995 while in London for a reading of a play of mine at the Greenwich Theatre. The small newspaper article I read one day about a young man’s trial for murder of his female “employer” tapped into my existing interest in and revulsion for the phenomenon of modern slavery. What I found initially compelling was that this victim of domestic and sex slavery was a young man while the perpetrator was a middle-aged woman. This contrasted with the usual dynamic of female sex trafficking that I and many others had gotten used to.
After inquiries were made—it was arranged by the accused’s solicitor that I visit the convicted young man in Brixton prison in South London to discuss his case and interview him for a potential magazine article. In the novel, I transferred many aspects of this experience with that of Detective Jayawan Gopal, in that the day before my scheduled visit the inmate was deported to India. This was, I learned, one of the terms of his conviction for “manslaughter with provocation,” a lesser charge than “capital murder” because of the extenuating circumstance of torture and enslavement that came out at trial.
Disappointed but glad for this young man’s second chance at freedom, I tried for several months to locate him in Tamil Nadu State through private investigators, to no avail. This was not a person with any social profile, no footprints to trace. No amount of web surfing turned up anything. I gave up on the piece, at least how I originally envisioned it. But this was that kind of story that gets a hold of a writer and will not let go. Unlike many of my other fact-based film and theater projects, there was very little documentary evidence to follow. There were no first-person witnesses available. As a result, I decided after several years away from the piece to embark on a major creative journey and write the story as a novel.
I worked on the book off and on for 27 years between film and theater and other writing projects. On subsequent trips to the UK, I visited the location of the actual incident on Finchley Lane in the borough of Hendon, North London. I photographed every house on each side of the street, knowing that in one of these dwellings these horrific events had taken place. I observed a number of trials at the Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court, to familiarize myself with the UK’s completely different trial system. After inquiring of the Court if a transcript of the trial could be obtained, I was told that as a murder case these records had been sealed. I did manage, through the kind intervention of a clerk, to receive a copy of the 28-page police summary of the case, which proved invaluable and was the single greatest piece of research I obtained.
With this in hand, I embarked on voluminous research into a culture not my own. This was an incredibly challenging process. A better word would be daunting.
I did my best to infuse Vijay’s desperate search for salvation during his ordeal in the Tagorstani’s house with the kind of Hindu and Tamil prayers I felt he, as a man of faith, would cling to for inner strength. I found out quickly that Indian culture is fiendishly complex, especially for outsiders. I was determined, as a Western writer, to get the facts and the history and the language right. This took a very long time and much trial and error.
What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?
Jobs/professions chronologically, from boyhood…yardboy, dishwasher, busboy, location scout, street photographer, house painter, waiter, aspiring filmmaker, on-set still photographer, assistant cameraman, apprentice film editor, assistant film editor, film editor, photojournalist, theater director, playwright, screenwriter, filmmaker, journalist, short story writer, and novelist.
What was the most rewarding/meaningful part of publishing your book?
In the process of writing House Boy, I came to understand a very sad reality—domestic and sex slavery knows no cultural or geographic boundaries. This kind of oppression seems to lie so deep in the human DNA as to be something eternal, insidious, fueled by greed, and a streak of cruelty beyond what most people are capable of, well enough able to comprehend.
The criminal elements at work here should not be discounted, which is why I made Binda and her gang at the Pandit Advisory Group such experts at “affinity fraud,” the nearly foolproof method of criminal enterprise based on people lowering their guard when dealing with those they feel are like them and would, therefore, never abuse their trust.
All this makes for an unholy alliance of factors that create the roles to be played in this sinister drama called modern slavery—the oppressed and the oppressors. It’s like an epic play that never ends. The curtain on these actions never rises or falls. The drama just goes on and on, year after year, decade after decade, millennia after millennia, like a marathon session in this madhouse called humanity.
If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?
Bollywood music videos & Carnatic devotional music would be fitting.
What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?
Over the long years of writing this story, I became fascinated by the way the caste system seemed to jump so effortlessly from the ancient world to the so-called “New World.” Over many years of writing and rewriting this piece, a major motivation was to try and nail down as much as possible why this happens in human society and how, with this book, there may be a way to illuminate this situation for the better.
Despite my long experience in documentary filmmaking and as a writer of non-fiction, I did not want to write a rigidly “factual” piece. I felt that being constrained by documentary facts (of which I had very few anyway) would not be the best way to create the scenes and situations I felt were necessary to paint a dramatic picture of this year in the life of Vijay Pallan. I was more after something that would keep me, as a reader, engaged from start to finish.
The risk with a piece like this is that you can exhaust the goodwill of the reader by being too relentlessly dark about what is taking place. Exhaustion sets in. Readers have been exposed to so much horror, so much human indignity, that the mere mention of something like modern slavery or human trafficking can send people running for something more palatable to read or experience. I had to find a way—and I hope I have—to make Vijay’s story so compelling, so captivating and powerful, that most people would tolerate the darkness of the piece in search of the light that does exist within it, the light of hope that can never be allowed to be extinguished.
What happens to Vijay and everyone else in this novel is no fairy tale. Despite there being no truly happy endings, I wanted House Boy to have some redemptive qualities. Largely through Inspector Gopal’s encounters with Vijay Pallan, we learn much about the harsh realities of human trafficking, the boundless capacity for human pain, and the ultimate blessing of even one man’s survival.
What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?
Visitations – Finding a Secret Relative in Modern-Day Hawaii is a memoir of the seventeen years I got to know a remarkable cousin of mine in Hawaii, the noted author and social activist Olivia Robello Breitha (1916-2006). See www.visitationsmemoir.com.
How was working with Atmosphere Press? What would you tell other writers who want to publish?
Publishing with Atmosphere has been a revealing and positive experience, with solid attention given to me and my novel at all levels of editorial, release, and marketing.