While it may come as a surprise to learn that Ulysses S. Grant's great-great-grandson, Ulysses Grant Dietz, serves as Chief Curator for New Jersey's Newark Museum, it might come as a bigger surprise that he is also an author, with two gay vampire titles under his belt. Dietz is one of the few people I know who has managed to incorporate his many disparate passions into a unified whole: He is a father, with two teenage children; he has a job he loves, overseeing the museum's impressive decorative arts collection; he reads voraciously, reviewing most everything he reads; he is the author of two novels and five nonfiction titles; and he is an out gay man, proudly advocating on behalf of the LGBT community.
In 1998 Alyson Books released his first book, Desmond: A Novel About Love and the Modern Vampire, which went on to be nominated for a Lambda Literary award in the Science Fiction/Fantasy category. Now, after a 14-year wait, his fans finally have their hands on his much-anticipated sequel, Vampire in Suburbia, which has finally hit the stores.
Thank you so much for sharing some of your time, Ulysses. The obvious first question is: Why so long between novels?
In a word: children. I was polishing up Desmond during the kids' naps while on parental leave back in 1997, and once it was published, the rest of my life distracted me from writing fiction. I've been thinking about it for a long, long time.
What inspired your first novel, Desmond?
In part, every vampire novel I'd read, from Dracula (which I read in middle school, the first time) to Anne Rice's novels. Specifically, when I wrote the first draft of Desmond back in 1988, Rice's Queen of the Damned had just appeared. Desmond as a character is my direct response to Rice's Louis, as well as Lestat. In fact, as my book opens, Desmond has just finished reading Queen of the Damned.
What was it about this character, Desmond Beckwith, that compelled you to continue his story?
In the first book, Desmond is surprised by love. He has resigned himself to a life alone over the course of two centuries. Yet he lives in the world. He has secrets he has to keep from the world. It's a delicate balance he maintains, and then the carefully constructed life he's made for himself is shattered by the appearance of Tony Chapman. Desmond is a romantic; although he's a vampire, he loves life. In the second book, Desmond gradually realizes that he doesn't really like living in isolation, without friends. It's this quest for connection that drives him. At the end of the first book his story was, in a sense, only beginning. I had to write the second book to bring Desmond's personal search to some sort of closure.
The blurb for Vampire in Suburbia notes that Desmond is handsome, rich, gay and a vampire, and that he's looking for a house in New Jersey. So I gotta ask: Is he related to Snooki?
Actually, I confess that after a martini with a friend, I've joked about a third book called Vampire Down the Shore, but I haven't figured out how I might work Snooki into the plot.
But seriously, the setting for the second book is something I'd thought about for years. It literally takes place where I live, in suburban Essex County, including within the museum where I have been a curator for 32 years. Desmond ends up in New Jersey in the wake of 9/11. His New York office is near Ground Zero, and Desmond, quite simply, is afraid. So he moves his company to Newark, to one of the many office towers near Newark's great art deco Penn Station -- just 10 miles from Manhattan. I've set the book in 2009, just after he regenerates (as my vampires do) back to the age he was created: 21. He realizes that this time around, he doesn't want to start all over again and simply leave behind the people who became his friends over the past 44 years. He also finds himself yearning for two things he gave up in the 18th century: land and a family. It's not your usual vampire story, but I'm as much a romantic as Desmond is.
Given your lineage, did you ever have any pushback? You know, a descendant of one of our nation's presidents, publishing a novel about gay vampires?
Not yet. I'm on the board of the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library, but I don't think any other board members have read it or are likely to. I'm a little more anxious about my professional world, because the book has a whole curator theme going, and my colleagues in the field are buying it to be supportive. I've talked it up on my Facebook page, and people are intrigued. I keep telling them that it's not really for them, but what can I do? They'll figure it out. I'm imagining lots of embarrassed silence. I don't think the Civil War buffs are going to even notice it exists.
Do you ever feel any added pressure that comes from your heritage? A responsibility to be a role model?
Oh, sure. But being a role model, living up to my name, is the whole reason behind my determination to live my life out and proud. It's the reason I've refused to use a pseudonym on these books, as if I have something to hide in writing them. I've had to instill that pride in my kids, and that pride includes being gay as much as it includes being a great-great-grandson of a president. Living my life with integrity -- as Ulysses S. Grant did -- without regard to what people say is my way of being a role model.
You wrote a piece for one of the New Jersey papers about same-gender marriage. How did your decision to speak out on marriage equality come about?
I'd forgotten I actually wrote that! I'm remembering it as an interview. It was for the Newark Star-Ledger back in 2009, and I was actually photographed in the Ballantine House, my main gallery space in the museum, which is featured in Vampire in Suburbia. I can't remember who contacted me or why, but marriage equality was and is a big issue here, and the fight for marriage, not just civil unions, is something I've been interested in for years. My partner Gary and I have been involved in gay politics in New Jersey for 30 years. We know a lot of people.
You and Gary have been together for 37 years now. How did you first meet?
We met at Yale, specifically at the Gay Alliance at Yale. I remember the day vividly. I was a junior, and Gary had just graduated and was working for the Yale Computer Center. He's a software engineer. It was October 1975, and I had just turned 20. He was my first date ever.
That is amazing! Long before my partner and I adopted, you and Gary became parents. That must have been trailblazing. What was that experience like?
I guess we were pioneers. We had lesbian friends who had started families, and our brothers each had children who were very much in our lives, so we were primed for a while before it dawned on us that we could have our own children. Surrogacy was not legally possible in New Jersey then, so we decided to go with adoption. We tried domestic adoptions, but after one particularly heartbreaking failure, we decided to look into international adoptions. At that time international adoptions were possible for gay couples, but one of the two partners had to essentially disappear, and the other one had to adopt as a single person.
That must have been challenging.
I kept a detailed journal for four years once this process started. It reads like a Tolstoy tragedy. It was a very rough four years. Several failures, including a disastrous venture in Russia, where Gary spent a month in Siberia with our baby, only to have the child taken away from him and the adoption canceled by someone somewhere in the bureaucracy who felt that no man could have a good reason to want to raise a child alone.
But eventually we succeeded -- and succeeded on two separate adoptions within a month of each other. So our son Alex and our daughter Grace arrived and changed our lives in 1996. I adopted them through a second-parent adoption a year or so later. We didn't even have a domestic partnership, but we were legally bound together by our children. Our names are on their U.S. birth certificates. It was amazing. And once you have your children, all the bad memories fade away.
I know reading is one of your main passions. Have you read anything recently that you couldn't put down?
Reading is an addiction with me. I always have my Kindle with me. I love young adult novels, written for teenagers, that have gay themes. I just finished Benjamin Alire Saenz's beautiful book Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. It's about a Mexican-American teenager in El Paso who finds a best friend one summer. The friendship between the boys is beautiful, but what I loved most was the importance of the parents. Many young adult novels marginalize the parental figures -- as teenagers themselves try to do. But Saenz makes the parents important and makes their love for their sons crucial in the narrative. It's a wonderful book.
With your unique worldview as an out gay dad, partner, author, reader, curator, etc., what do you see as the biggest issues facing the LGBT community?
What I see as the biggest issue facing our community is our complacence in the face of the upwelling of right-wing religiosity in this country, in the secular world and especially in politics. I came out in the 1970s, before AIDS, and things have improved so much since then that it's hard to believe. But for all the acceptance my family and I have experienced in our little bubble of diversity in Maplewood, N.J., there is a significant anti-gay world out there trying to figure out how to undo all the progress we've made. I'm a devout Episcopalian, by the way, and church is important to me, but I feel somewhat like an assimilated Jew in Germany in the early 1930s, who felt that they were safe and beyond harm. There are young gay folk who talk about the world being "post-gay," and it's just not true. Not yet.
Hopefully, that day will come soon. Lastly, you are so entrenched in arts and culture. What impact do you think those have on us as people, and as a society?
That's a loaded question. Look, I've given my life to the Newark Museum. I believe in art and the power of art to transform lives. My entire career has been dedicated to connecting people with objects, to telling stories that help people see the world in a slightly different way. I help people fall in love with the things I love. My nonfiction books have been part of my curatorial life; my novels are just another aspect of that storytelling instinct.
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Author photo courtesy of the Newark Museum