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A U.S. President’s Great, Great, Grandson’s Big Gay Vampire Novel

Saturday, October 27, 2012

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 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 non-fiction 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.

In the blurb for Vampire in Suburbia, it notes that Desmond is handsome, rich, gay, a vampire, and he’s looking for a house in 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 thirty-two 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 ten 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: twenty one. 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 eighteenth 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 imaging 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.

Ulysses Grant Dietz

How did your decision to speak out on marriage equality come about? You wrote a piece for one of the New Jersey papers about same gender marriage…

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 union, is something I’ve been interested in for years. My partner Gary and I have been involved in gay politics in New Jersey for thirty years. We know a lot of people.

You and Gary have been together 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 twenty. 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 US 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 it’s hard to believe. But, for all the acceptance my family and I have experienced in our little bubble of diversity in Maplewood, New Jersey, 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 non-fiction books have been part of my curatorial life; my novels are just another aspect of that story-telling instinct.

The books of Ulysses Grant Dietz can be found on Amazon, with more information on his publisher’s website.
Author Photo courtesy of the Newark Museum.

© Kergan Edwards-Stout.
For more by Kergan Edwards-Stout, click here to visit his blog.
Opinions and advice expressed in our Views & Voices columns represent the author's own views and not necessarily those of LGBTQ Nation. We welcome opposing views and diverse perspectives. To submit a article, column or video, contact us here. Due to the volume of submissions received, we cannot guarantee publication.

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11 more reader comments:

  1. perfect :)

    Posted on Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 10:25am
  2. Desmond was released many years ago and is uninspired, unreadable, pedestrian drivel. Here is the review I wrote at the time. Sorry to hear some poor sucker pushed a sequel through after all.

    Posted on Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 10:39am
  3. I was ready to give this book a zero before I finished the prologue. Dietz plants big slobbery kisses all over the hem of Anne Rice’s robe and you’re only on page 2. But, gag reflex duly tested, I read on. What fell apart before me was a story about a gay vampire named Desmond who plays benevolent sugar daddy to the vapid boy toys of his past and present – Jeffrey and Tony. It’s a trashy theme and it could have worked fairly well if it was done right. But it wasn’t, so it didn’t. First, a middle-aged Desmond quickly falls in love with a 20-something hustler/museum curator named Tony in New York City, ca. 1998. Then it’s back in time to revolutionary Paris where Desmond delivers an unfocused account of an older vampire named Charlon and his kept man, the young and randy Roger (Desmond’s longtime best friend and the token heterosexual in the story). Then, after another brief stop in present-day NYC, it’s off to 18th century England where we read about Desmond, the powerful landowner’s young son and his barely legal, subservient valet, Jeffrey. And just when you think Dietz can’t possibly drag this tired schtick out any longer and still get published, you’re back in the 1700s and the theme continues with a now 21-year-old Desmond listening all wide-eyed to his older vampire mentor/creator, Baron Tsolnay. All that and Dietz still can’t come up with a single inspired character. The plot hinges unsuccessfully on the author’s exploitation of the stereotypes surrounding an archetypal coupling from gay culture – the older, wiser “daddy” type and the impetuous male ingenue (a/k/a, the boy toy). Once he had that notion in his head, Dietz held on for dear life and rode it all the way to the end of the book. Rather than focus on character development, he just started scraping off the serial numbers by interchanging character names. To the casual observer, there are several main characters, but in reality, there are NO well-developed characters in the story — just two half-baked character sketches that get a new name, new face, new clothing and new home whenever Dietz decides to jump forward or backward in time. The French vampires (Charlon, Roger and a handful of others) become nothing more than extras in this story, clumsily jettisoned into oblivion because Dietz doesn’t know what to do with them. Dietz clearly didn’t have a strong understanding of the story he set out to write. The story is rife with inconsistencies and inaccuracies. For example, at the end of the prologue (page 6), he has Desmond reminiscing about “a night like this — a cold winter night…” But then, just one day later in the chronology of the story (page 91), Desmond and Tony grab “their coats, heading out into the bright November morning.” Huh? When does winter begin in New York? That’d be the end of December – not November. November would make it a cold AUTUMN night. The dialogue is insipid and any iota of sensuality is squashed by Dietz’s constant blushing. Just imagine the worst soft-core sex film you ever watched and you’ll have an idea of how this book reads. Stiff, awkward, self-conscious dialogue that lasts just long enough to get Dietz to his next tepid sex scene, all of which are written as though he’s never had sex with the lights on before and thinks the whole experience is somehow too sordid to write about. He actually uses the term “private parts” in a sex scene. How very prim. Instead of writing about interesting sex between believable characters, Dietz saves his lust for furniture. Thankfully, Dietz does have a day job; he’s the curator for the decorative arts department of The Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey. Nonfiction decorative arts books appear to comprise the rest of his ouevre so its no holds barred when it comes time for him to spout off about the furnishings mentioned in the book. Page after page after page of furniture and more furniture. If you’ve read Anne Rice and you adore how she eschews storytelling only to go on and on about the flatware on the dining room banquette and the design of the breakfront in the front parlor, then you might enjoy easily a quarter of this book. One Amazon reviewer refers to Dietz’s writing style as “succinct.” It’s not. To be succinct, the book would have to tell a rich story in an economical manner. _Desmond_ is simply rushed and poorly conceived. Dietz hurries from one scene to the next without filling in any of the blanks that would have added depth to the story and its cast, chucking in directionless text about home furnishings when he couldn’t think of anything else to say. Another big problem with this book is that Dietz never knows his characters well enough to write them convincingly. Charlon is first depicted as a beastly sort who rules his fellow vampires with an iron fist, but then he offers no resistance to his kept man, Roger, leaving Paris with Desmond. The character of Tony Chapman doesn’t develop so much as he becomes another character entirely, with him doing things during the last 30 or so pages of the book the true blue Tony I had grown to know and loathe would never have dreamed of doing. There’s also a trumped up subplot about a “gay vampire sex killer” whose role at the end of the story is so unlikely as to be unbelievable. Like I said, half-baked. _Desmond_ is so bad that I contacted the publisher, Alyson Books, asking how something so bad could have gotten past their editors. The representative I heard from disavows any connection to this novel. In fact, I was told that those who pushed this book through no longer work for the company. At least it appears that the world won’t have to suffer a sequel.

    Posted on Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 10:53am
  4. Wow Duke, you really have a hard-on for this author. We get it, you don’t like his books. You seem to be such an authority, what books have you written that we all might rip into and tell just how shitty you are as well?

    Posted on Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 11:06am
  5. Fucking tool. SMH

    Posted on Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 11:06am
  6. A hard-on is the last thing I can imagine mustering up for Dietz or his hackneyed writing. As someone who actually invested my money, time, and attention to his first novel, I was and still am entitled to share my opinions. And you are entitled to ignore me.

    Posted on Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 11:21am
  7. It’s been 15 years. How pathetic and miserable you must be to keep slamming the author after so many years. Get over it.

    Posted on Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 12:31pm
  8. Actually, Randy, I had long ago forgotten about Desmond and Mr. Dietz. It was this blurb that popped up in my FB feed that brought it all back to me. By the way… have you actually read Desmond, or are you just trolling?

    Posted on Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 12:37pm
  9. No, I just think it’s petty that you feel so compelled to post a 1000-word diatribe on a book you read 15 years ago. The FB blurb “brought it all back to me..” ??? Seriously? Get professional help.

    Posted on Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 12:45pm
  10. I copied and pasted the review I gave the book at Amazon at the time Desmond was released. I had nothing to do with the 15-year span between it and its sequel. Take that up with the author. It’s a fair and accurate review of a terrible book.

    Posted on Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 1:47pm
  11. I loved “Desmond.” Can’t wait to read THIS book.

    Posted on Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 2:55pm