Friday 12 August 2022

Lorenzo DeStefano - #AuthorInterview

 I am absolutely thrilled and honoured to have recently interviewed, author and film director, Lorenzo DeStefano. Lorenzo published his debut novel, House Boy, during June of this year, and it is a fantastic book. If you would like to read my review you can do so by clicking here. It is one of the most thought provoking novels I have read in a long time and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Q   House Boy is your debut novel. Can you tell me a little about your background?

I was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. While still in high school I began working as location scout for local commercial production companies and apprenticed to several independent filmmakers based in Hawaii. At the same time I  was exploring his creative process as a teenage street photographer in Honolulu, chronicling the diverse multi-cultural island life where I  grew up.  My early black & white thematic work included Rest Homes Hawaii and Leahi Hospital – Children’s Ward. 

My other photography credits include the travelling exhibition, “Cubanos-Island Portraits - 1993-1998”, which has been shown extensively in Cuba as well as in New York, Chicago, London, Havana, Los Angeles, and Vancouver and is part of the Permanent Collection of MOLAA, the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California. My photographs have also been licensed for Print, CDs, TV & Film, including for HBO’s, Six Feet Under and for the Warner Brothers film, Queen of the Damned.

On moving to Carmel, California, I expanded my visual explorations to making my own short films and learning more about the film making process. During this time I was accepted into Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara but decided to change from still photography to film making, focusing on a career in film editing.

It as at that point that I moved to Los Angeles and worked at the post-production facilities of National Geographic Films in Hollywood. My first onscreen credit was as an assistant editor on the National Geographic Special, Hong Kong - A Family Portrait.

I was eventually accepted into the Motion Picture Editor’s Guild. I then worked as an Apprentice Editor, working on films such as The Blue Lagoon before working as First Assistant Editor and Co-Editor on four further features.

My first solo credit as a Film Editor was on Girls Just Want To Have Fun before becoming a Director member of the Directors Guild of America. My first feature documentary film was Talmage Farlow and I produced and directed subsequent documentaries including Hearing is Believing.

As a writer/producer, my narrative film projects include The Diarist (2021), a 5-Part Limited Series, and House Boy (2022), a 3-Part Limited Series, which is in progress.

When did you decide to write House Boy and what prompted you to do so?

A  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 his second chance at freedom, I tried for several months to locate this young man 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 & 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 it for many years, in between film and theatre 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, 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.

Q  How did you go about doing research for House Boy?

A   I consulted with people at Anti-Slavery International in the U.K., Free The Slaves in the U.S., Human Rights Watch, and Kalayaan, a London-based charity which works to provide practical advice and support for the rights of migrant workers.

I also read a number of books on the subject of modern slavery, the most important being Kevin Bales’ The Slave Next Door and Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy.

I watched a number of video news stories from India and all over the world covering cases of modern slavery. I also watched many times the amazing film, Bandit Queen, about the notorious Dalit woman, Phoolan Devi, who formed a gang of mostly male soldiers and took violent revenge on the upper caste tormentors who had repeatedly raped her at any early age and beat and humiliated her and her family over many years. After receiving amnesty, Devi stood for election to Parliament as a candidate of the Samajwadi Party and was twice elected as a Member of Parliament. She served in this capacity between 1996 and 2001, the year she was assassinated outside her home by relatives of those she and her supporters had killed years before for revenge.

Researching House Boy was a fascinating but often unpleasant experience that exposed me to a very bloody and tumultuous history, one lasting thousands of years and crossing borders like an unstoppable virus, a pernicious disease.

The book, and Vijay's attitudes, revolve around the Indian caste system. Was it difficult immersing yourself in such a different way of life and attitude?

A  While I believe that writers should be able to explore any subject under the sun, no matter their ethnicity, there is a special responsibility when the story is outside one’s life and cultural experience. From the beginning I knew that a major part of completing the manuscript would be to consult with a South Asian author or academic to help me eliminate anything inauthentic or just plain wrong. Through Atmosphere Press I met Falguni Jain, a young writer and book reviewer from Maharashtra, India. Falguni was extremely helpful in making certain that the many references to South Asian cultural & religious content were correct and that the rigorous rules of the caste system, down to names and customs and social attitudes, were authentic and indisputable.

The trust and support of many people have gone into this book’s completion, including everyone at Atmosphere Press for seeing the promise in the book and guiding me expertly towards publication. Most importantly, I need to send thanks and respect to “EMG”, the man I never met, who actually lived this story.

Other than my efforts to meet “EMG”, I do not have any first-hand experience with human trafficking. I guess I should consider myself fortunate in this, though I do feel that by immersing myself in this story for all these years I have attempted to come as close as I can to what it would be like to be in a situation like Vijay’s, though nothing in a book, however well-executed or intentioned, can compare to what goes on in real life.

During this entire process, 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 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.

Q  Can you tell me a little about your writing process?

As you’ll find out from the history of the lengthy evolution of House Boy, described above, from the 1995 discovery of the true crime story on which it is based to the book’s publication in 2022, I do not work that quickly. Though I certainly didn’t work on the book for that entire 27 year period, it was often on my mind and gestating.

It began as a screenplay that was optioned to two producers in the UK, though I decided to pull it from development and committed to first finishing it as a novel. I devoted concerted time to it over the last three years, with a year-and-a-half of that in editorial with Atmosphere Press. I wanted my first novel to be scrupulously researched and prepared beyond reproach for publication.

Though I can and do write quickly when it’s flowing, I have a number of other projects, primarily for film & theater, that have had long development periods, especially The Diarist, which you can read more about at and

As for the technical approach, I write on a computer though frequently refer to handwritten notes accumulated over time. Time of day is immaterial, though late nights into early morning sems to be the most fertile, until exhaustion sets in.

Q  According to ImDB there is a screenplay in the pipeline. When will this be available?

A  The screenplay of House Boy is in progress and is envisioned as a 5 part/5 hour Limited Series for one of the major streaming platforms or premium cable networks. It will likely be a UK/India/US co-production, with me serving as Producer/Writer, in association with an established producer/show runner and a director of South Asian or Indo-British extraction. I would hope it could be produced in 2023/2024 for a 2024/2025 release, though this depends on the development and production process, which can be lengthy and unpredictable.

Are you planning on writing further novels?

My next book will likely be a non-fiction memoir titled Visitations - Finding a Secret Relative in Modern-Day Hawaii. 

As someone born and raised in Hawaii, I was 37 when I learned from my mother that we had a relative with Hansen’s disease, known to the world as leprosy. Olivia Robello was born in 1916 on the island of Kauai to Portuguese immigrant parents from the Azores. She grew up in a tight-knit, hardworking community where family pride and the magnetic pull of assimilation often clashed. People kept anything potentially embarrassing locked tightly in the closet. If word ever got out that someone in the family had contracted such a dreaded disease as leprosy it would have a serious effect on their social standing, the way they were treated at work, at school, even in church.

By the time I met Olivia in December of 1989, on Molokai’s remote Kalaupapa peninsula, the antiquated rules surrounding “the separation sickness” had largely vanished. In the 17 years that we were able to share, this tough, razor-witted lady taught me much about humanity in all its forms. She was a living witness to wrenching public policy decisions going back more than 150 years, decisions that forever altered people’s lives and sent them to a place where few expected to emerge. Olivia was a woman for whom truth was an emotion. Candor was an essential card in her deck. She doled out both whether you asked her to or not. She didn’t act out of mere orneriness, though that could definitely come into it. She was trying to protect herself from what she saw as the distractions of a public life she never asked for but for which she was ideally suited.

That only leaves me to say a huge thank you to Lorenzo for being so generous with his time. It has been fascinating to learn of the backstory that went into producing House Boy. It's a brilliant book and I would encourage everyone to read it.

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