Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: In “One Joint,” your closing lines “Hot coals turn to ash” and “Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust” lead to a really impactful ending. Can you talk about the importance of implementing these two lines at the end of the piece as well as what these lines meant to you in relation to the piece?

Mercury-Marvin Sunderland: I grew up a religious Christian, but not in the way you’re probably thinking of, because I also happen to be a transgender gay man from Seattle. I still consider myself religious, but not Christian anymore. For that reason, “ashes to ashes, and dust to dust” made sense, because that’s a reference to Ash Wednesday. In Christian belief, we are all made from dust, and dust is all that we become after we die. The image of the hot coals turning to ash is a mere observation of the fire dying out and becoming nothing.

RR: We’re intrigued by the nontraditional formatting of this piece. How did you decide on the formatting of this piece? Did other genres help inspire this format?

MMS: I first started writing creative nonfiction pieces like this as an exercise for my college screenwriting class. We were asked to go to a location, and list as many things we could see and hear, in the way one would as camera directions for a screenplay. I discovered that I quite liked that format, and my professor really liked what I’d written, too. My forte is poetry, and my professor said that what he really liked about my writing was that my roots in poetry showed a great understanding of visuals and emotion.

RR: Where do you usually get your ideas from when you start writing?

MMS: With poetry, I usually just take my latest sensory experience and just go with it. I’m autistic and I have Borderline Personality Disorder—a common autistic trait is sensory sensitivity, and “stimming,” which is strong sensory comfort that derives from that. It is also true that strong upsetting emotions caused by Borderline are best managed by strong sensory activity, meaning that these two create a strong bond for these sensory needs. I usually resort to food, because it’s usually the sensory thing that I feel like I can write the most about.

As a high schooler, my main reputation was playwriting, and I would win all these awards for them in Seattle. I was known for having the most bizarre titles for them—such as “My Skin is Covered With a Thin Layer of Peanut Butter” or “I Am a Pear.” How I would prompt them would be that I’d think of a weird sentence that was heard without context, make that the title, and then ask myself how I could write a story that fit it. By my senior year, that became a massive inside joke in my entire school and people would yell “NEW PLAY TITLE” every time someone said something weird around me. I unfortunately don’t use this method too often anymore—I write far too often for me to be that selective. But I still use it, and love it quite a lot.

Other than sensory details, I also take a lot from pop culture and mythology. I’m currently in the process of converting to Hellenism (which is the Greco-Roman religion, named after Helen of Troy), and I’ve always been a huge geek. What I’ve always loved about geek culture is that it tends to be one of the most welcoming communities for autistic people, because we’re welcome to love something that much. I love books, cartoons, comics, and video games. Fantasy makes sense to me because I can take the pieces of religion and pop culture that I love and turn them into my own personal brand. I’m currently studying to become a screenwriter and a storyboard artist for animated TV shows, which is a teenage dream I’ve felt very confident I’ll enjoy.

I’ve had to pump out a lot of writing in order to submit to magazines as much as I do these days — in just 2020 alone, I submitted 3,318 times (yes, seriously). For that reason, I have tended to use my poetry methods more often for other genres, because I’m trying to get prompts more quickly. Because I’m Borderline, I have much less impulse control, which means that I also have much less of a filter—this is a double-edged sword, but it does come in handy for overcoming writer’s block.

RR: We see that you write fiction and poetry as well. Which genre is your favorite? Do you have a different approach to writing fiction and nonfiction? What about poetry?

MMS: Poetry’s obviously my favorite, as I mentioned before. I’m also trying to regain that playwriting spirit I had in high school, because when I got really into poetry, that really took the wheel and made it difficult for me to focus on other writerly genres. I’m still making my way back, though I’m not too scared. With playwriting, I tend to focus on absurdist fantasy realism based on mythological concepts. In literary writing, I write that, too, but I also enjoy writing slice-of-life authentic trans narratives. Poetry and nonfiction tend to be just what I pull out on the spot—whereas fiction in both the literary and theatrical sense tends to be more elaborately brainstormed before it meets the page.

RR: You mentioned in your bio that your lifelong dream is to become the most banned author in human history. How did you come to that dream? Do you have any pieces that were written specifically to get banned?

MMS: I first started going around saying that when I was sixteen, because at that age I realized that pretty much all the good books were banned for the most ridiculous reasons. I haven’t really written anything for the intention of being banned, but the way I figure is that as long as I, as a transgender gay man, am getting my word out, I’m going to be inevitably banned because trans and gay themes are two of the most common reasons why books get banned.

Funny enough, actually, the “Marvin” in my name actually does come from a banned book—The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. When I first saw that name there, my immediate thought was, That’s my name. I don’t know why, but that’s my name. I then started calling myself “Marvin” in my head after that. That was before I even realized I was a trans guy.

The way I see it—it’s my job as a writer to make the media uncomfortable with narratives that challenge the status quo. If people burn my work in the streets, ban them from schools, and lock them in glass cases, that’s gonna be what will show me that my writing was powerful enough to make people scared of it.

Mercury-Marvin Sunderland’s work in Issue 9.1: 

“One Joint”