January 07, 2009

MFA student edits the unusual ‘Versus Anthology’

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Perhaps it is appropriate that a friendly challenge during a class discussion planted the seed for “The Versus Anthology.”

J. Dillon Woods, (Henderson, Ky.) a graduate student in the creative writing master of fine arts program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, is the editor of a new anthology expected this summer from Press 53. Though this will not mark his first time in print, it will be the first time he is editor of an anthology.

The concept is fairly simple, and, within its simplicity, it is open to boundless possibility. All the stories in the anthology are “versus” stories -- as in “this versus that.” Some are character versus character, or historical figure versus historical figure -- for example, “Barbie vs. Stalin,” or “Theodore Roosevelt vs. Spring Heeled Jack.” Others are conceptual, such as “Love vs. Lust.” Some are autobiographical, such as “My Father vs. The Soap Lady.”

The guiding principle, Woods said, is to oppose “two iconic and incompatible forces,” taking them seriously as fully fledged characters or concepts and yet having fun with the possible implications of that opposition.

“’VS’ is the first anthology to indulge directly in the widely popular activity of pitting characters and forces against one another,” Woods noted in correspondence with Press 53, adding that people engage in “versus” imaginative play all the time and from an early age.

The germ of the idea came, he said, when a fellow student in an SIUC writing seminar suggested that Woods’ writing tended to build to a climactic event, and then end -- that just once he ought to have a “big, epic battle, like Jesus versus Thor or something,” Woods said.

In response, Woods wrote “Jesus VS Thor,” which appears in the anthology.

“I felt really freed,” he said. “I could take both characters seriously, really examining them as characters, and still have fun with the story.”

He expanded the concept during the 2008 Young Writers Workshop, an annual residential creative writing workshop for high school students hosted by SIUC’s English department.

“I used the ‘versus’ concept for a writing exercise in which I assigned two characters to the students at random, and then asked them to pit the characters against each other. The whole room just exploded with energy. They were coming up with ideas faster than they could write,” he said.

Woods realized he was onto something when he used MySpace to call out to others writers with the “Versus” concept. Within 48 hours, he had a number of hits -- and interest from Press 53, an independent publisher of literary fiction, poetry and nonfiction, based in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Woods said he wondered, at first, if he had enough experience with his chosen craft to edit an anthology.

“I told Josh (Woods) that nothing is practice, even in an MFA program,” Pinckney Benedict, SIUC professor of creative writing, said. “It’s all real life, and so he should go ahead with real projects.”

Woods jumped in with both feet and sent a proposal packet to Press 53.

“I thought it would be mostly short stories,” Woods said of the anthology. “But Benedict wanted to do a graphic narrative, another writer wanted to write autobiography -- she once had wrestled comedian Andy Kaufman. So we have non-fiction, a five-minute screenplay and poetry as well. We don’t even know what to call some of these things.”

“It’s highly unusual for a graduate student to bring a difficult professional project like this innovative anthology to fruition,” Benedict said. “This kind of achievement goes well beyond the academic requirements of any MFA program, and sets Woods well on the path to a full-fledged professional career as a writer and editor.”

“The faculty here at SIUC are immensely supportive of their students,” Woods said. “And other writers were willing to have fun with this.”

For more information about the anthology, visit www.press53.com and follow the “Coming Soon…” link. For more information about the creative writing program at SIUC, visit www.siu.edu/departments/english/ and follow the links to creative writing.