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Joyce Carol Oates
The Faith of a Writer


Original Airdate: April 9, 2004

 

About the Author

Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Book Award and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. She wrote the national bestsellers We Were the Mulvaneys and Blonde, which was nominated for the National Book Award. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978. In 2003 she was a recipient of the Common Wealth Award for Distibguished Service in Literature.

 

About this Book

The Faith Of A Writer: Life, Craft, Art, is Joyce Carol Oates examination of the craft that she has spent that past forty years perfecting. In this book, Oates details the permeable effects of literature in regard to its engineering minds. While Oates describes her early infatuation with the written word, she also includes chapters dedicated to aspiring writers, the craft itself, the obligation of the writer to read and the environment that fuels creativity. Underlying these, she also sees the impulse to write as being a necessary facet of existence, the utmost height of human endeavor. Calling upon her influences, both predecessors and contemporaries, she systematically illustrates her defense of writing and its implicit foundation in culture. She claims that, through the act of writing or self expression, the individual communes with the masses, with those that have shared in the voice. Hers are words of encouragement, persistence, passion and art. This book appeals to all fans of literature, writers and readers alike. In the process of bringing writing to the conscious mind, Oates fuels an homage to the literary canon.

 


Transcript

Ron Carlson: Hello, Welcome to Books & Co. I'm Ron Carlson. And today our guest is the writer Joyce Carol Oates, one of the premiere writers in America. Her most recent books are the novel, "Rape, A Love Story," and a book of essays about writing called "The Faith of a Writer." Welcome. I'm so glad you're here. Why did you call it "The Faith of a Writer"?

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, I thought that I really do have a lot of faith and idealism about writing, and that I would just be very direct and candid about it and call it "The Faith of a Writer."

Ron Carlson: Right. It is kind of a loose autobiography, at least you start –

Joyce Carol Oates: That's right. It’s a memoir.

Ron Carlson: Yeah, why don't you talk about -- your name is featured in the press often about your current work, but I don't think everybody knows about your beginnings as a writer. Do you want to talk about that?

Joyce Carol Oates: Probably my beginnings as a writer are somewhat similar to most people's beginnings. I think like all of us, I was very intrigued by telling stories and drawing and working with crayons when I was really little and coloring books. And I think the creativity that is in all of us is really sort of communal. It's in the species. So basically, it just derives from that. And I just stayed with it, you know.

Ron Carlson: Were you in elementary school when you were writing and drawing like that? Is that what you are talking about?

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, probably a little earlier.

Ron Carlson: Okay.

Joyce Carol Oates: Because I was scribbling little novels and things before I could write. I didn't know how to write, but I was emulating adult handwriting. I remember how exciting that was. And I probably thought that maybe people didn't know, that this was really handwriting, this scribbling. So that impulse, I think, just stays with us.

Ron Carlson: You still handwrite?

Joyce Carol Oates: I do. I really like it a lot, yes.

Ron Carlson: Seriously, you handwrite? You work with a pen?

Joyce Carol Oates: I do, and I really like it a lot. It's almost like needlepoint. I do so much revising, like five hours on the airplane to get here, I just write and rewrite a few pages over and over again very carefully and I'll decide to completely recast the paragraph, and I do it in writing. I do have a word processor, I have a computer at the university.

Ron Carlson: Sure.

Joyce Carol Oates: But if I were working with that, it would be much more formal. It wouldn't have quite the layers to it. I think my writing wouldn't have as many layers to it as handwriting.

Ron Carlson: Right. You probably developed your own style too. I mean, physically, the style of your pen and so on. Is that part of it? The way they used to talk about the way you have to break in the stylus?

Joyce Carol Oates: Oh, I don't know. I'm basically kind of easy going, and I think that if we have to write in different ways –

Ron Carlson: Sure.

Joyce Carol Oates: -- we can do it, you know. Henry James was dictating his later novels. If we had to do that, I'm sure you could do it, too. We wouldn't really want to do it, but we get into it and become –

Ron Carlson: I wouldn't want to dictate a novel. I think it would be hard –

Joyce Carol Oates: It would be hard.

Ron Carlson: -- making it dense enough.

Joyce Carol Oates: But if we had to do it, because you could dictate it, and then you could have it typed up, see a transcript and you could do it again, you know.

Ron Carlson: Right, right. Are you -- so what about your first formal stories? Were those in elementary school? In your school days were you writing stories? Would you call them stories or pieces or novels?

Joyce Carol Oates: I think as a really little girl I had tablets, and I was trying to write mini-novels. I was so impressed with Alice in Wonderland Through the looking Glass. It was a first grade book of my entire life. And it has these wonderful illustrations, and so I was probably emulating Lewis Carroll pretty directly, which is what children do. They're natural mimics. And children are fantasists and they invent and make up all these extraordinary things. So I wouldn't say I was doing anything very different from anyone else.

Ron Carlson: No, I think that's right. Do you think now -- do you think that emulation and imitation is an important part of a writer's apprenticeship?

Joyce Carol Oates: It's probably sort of unconscious, like a young musician hearing a really great musician play just once can be influenced in very positive ways.

Ron Carlson: Sure.

Joyce Carol oates: It's hard to say exactly how that influence works, but it's maybe subliminal.

Ron Carlson: It gets in there and then comes out in some way.

Joyce Carol Oates: In some way. What are your early influences?

Ron Carlson: Well, I look back now, and I see that I was sometimes emulating certainly and sometimes imitating writers who I read, sometimes my teachers. There was a guy at Utah named David Cranes, and I feel I owe him a debt. It was real interesting. But I had to stand there to go to the next place, I think, and borrow from the other people.

Joyce Carol Oates: What about your earliest book that you remember when you were a child?

Ron Carlson: I stole it from Marvin Wharton. I'll tell you right where we were on Concord Street. I was about to be in the 6th grade. He showed me his notebook. It was a little one in his pocket, and he said look, and he had filled it all up. He had written -- and I thought that's right, we could write our own books. That was thrilling for me. I guess that's what you are talking about. But -- now you, in college then, what was your first external recognition as a writer? We're moving fast here but --

Joyce Carol Oates: I was always encouraged, I think, like most students who are enthusiastic about writing. My high school teachers encouraged me. I remember I was so under the influence of William Faulkner in high school and also Ernest Hemingway. They were great icons to me. I was like 15, 16 years old. So the first novel that I wrote was sort of linked short stories in the way of Hemingway's "In Our Time."

Ron Carlson: right.

Joyce Carol Oates: I remember writing these stories and being so influenced by Hemingway. And he's a wonderful influence for a young person, and all of that is basically lost. I don't have that.
One of the stories was published in a high school magazine, so once in a while people send it to me. The magazine still exists. And it's very embarrassing because it's such a Hemingway story.

Ron Carlson: You can see it still?

Joyce Carol Oates: Oh, absolutely.

Ron Carlson: Yeah, yeah, but then you won an award in college? Was it "The Red Book"?

Joyce Carol Oates: Contest.

Ron Carlson: yeah, exactly.

Joyce Carol Oates: Just luck.

Ron Carlson: I'm not so sure.

Joyce Carol Oates: Pure luck.

Ron Carlson: I'm not so sure. If we were still talking about the one story, I'd agree with you. But what did that do? What was that like? Writers always ask about when can you call yourself a writer or, you know, that question which seems strange to me but –

Joyce Carol Oates: It is strange.

Ron Carlson: Was that an important event?

Joyce Carol Oates: I guess so. It just didn't seem very real to me. I found it very astonishing. And when you think about the contingencies of life, you know, evolution itself, if you went back in time and did it all over again, probably I wouldn't win. You know, like it was just like a roll of the dice and somebody else would win, and I think our lives are very much based upon luck.

Ron Carlson: You do?

Joyce Carol Oates: I think so.

Ron Carlson: Fate or luck?

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, all the words perhaps, but chance.

Ron Carlson: Okay.

Joyce Carol Oates: In other words, do we get what we deserve or do we deserve what we get?

Ron Carlson: There are a lot of coincidences in your books, people who see each other then become important for each other later.

Joyce Carol Oates: Uh-huh.

Ron Carlson: That's certainly the case in this novel.

Joyce Carol Oates: Uh-huh. Well, just in terms evolution, to survive in a sense is a great gift, because most -- many species are extinct.

Ron Carlson: Yeah, exactly.

Joyce Carol Oates: People, individuals within species don't survive. Just to have survived seems to be just a miracle, to get born and then to survive. Then when you are a writer, you just have to imagine a landscape filled with yearning, creative people, and I feel that many people are talented and deserving, but they haven't somehow had luck. They haven't -- it just hasn't happened, and why it hasn't, no one would know. But I know people like that.

Ron Carlson: Sure.

Joyce Carol Oates: And art, too, especially the visual arts.

Ron Carlson: Right. Did you -- you said somewhere, and it's somewhere in that book, that thing about it doesn't get any easier. You are an experienced writer. I can say that with some confidence, and you are in the middle of another work. You were editing it on the plane, I'm sure, and is this new work not easier than writing the books you were writing five or ten years ago?

Joyce Carol Oates: I think it really depends upon what we're trying to do. I try to have a contrast. If I did a really monumental difficult novel that's maybe 6-700 pages long, the next project I do is not going to be that ambitious.

Ron Carlson: I understand.

Joyce Carol Oates: So there's a kind of rhythm. Do you do that too?

Ron Carlson: Well, I think I'll say what I hear from my friends, and I'm going write the next book very differently than I'm writing this book.

Joyce Carol Oates: That's right. That's how I feel, too.

Ron Carlson: I don't know what that is. It's just that great urge.

Joyce Carol Oates: It's the great urge, and I think it's very healthy. If you've done a really exhausting novel that took a long time that just wore you out, you don't want to start another one too soon.

Ron Carlson: Right.

Joyce Carol Oates: So I would do short stories. I love novellas. I love the short form. If I could write novellas all the time I'd be happy, but it's actually hard to write a novella.

Ron Carlson: Let's talk about this book. It's a powerful book. And of course, it has a provocative title, "Rape, A Love Story." And it turns out to be -- I have to admit, the archeus is very gratifying. There is a sense of revenge here. Let's use this book as the model to talk about how you approach -- let's just talk about this project.

Joyce Carol Oates: Uh-huh.

Ron Carlson: Did you -- it almost feels like it came from a newspaper account or an idea -- what is the germ? What was the germ of this story?

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, Ron, you believe in place very strongly. So do I. I can't really write anything unless it seems to be generated by a place. That's a Niagara Falls, New York story. So the very landscape and the kind of debased nature and chemical air and so forth, all of that is part of that novel, and I'm from that area. I'm from Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York. So basically I begin with a place. Then for me, the idea of the novel is structural. I'm a formalist. For me, the chapters are going to be very short, and the –

Ron Carlson: You plan that ahead of time?

Joyce Carol Oates: The whole thing is going to be short chapters, uh-huh, yeah.

Ron Carlson: Some them are a page and a half.

Joyce Carol Oates: Two parts and it's going to go just like this, she's raped, this happens, this happens, this happens. The whole thing, it's just going to follow from the first sentence. And then there's a last sentence, and the whole thing is all kind of in my head. Then I have to write it.

Ron Carlson: I understand. I understand. Let's go back to that. The whole thing is in your head?

Joyce Carol Oates: Just about, yeah, just about.

Ron Carlson: Did you know -- so you knew about the daughter, what the effect would be on her?

Joyce Carol Oates: Oh, sure. She is the person who tells the story.

Ron Carlson: Yeah.

Joyce Carol Oates: Yeah.

Ron Carlson: And you knew about the police officer Dromoor and what he might do in response?

Joyce Carol Oates: Oh, absolutely.

Ron Carlson: That's the compelling issue here is that a person -- I think you address it on several pages where a person who is essentially a bystander, a policeman who comes, and then has this thing attach itself to him, this crime, this woman, this history, in such a way that it changes his life.

Joyce Carol Oates: Some people have a sense of justice.

Ron Carlson: Right.

Joyce Carol Oates: And they don't feel that the criminal justice system can deliver.

Ron Carlson: Right.

Joyce Carol Oates: And I would say very often that's the case.

Ron Carlson: Yeah.

Joyce Carol Oates: And so it's "Rape, A Love Story." Rape is one part of the masculine experience, but then a love story is the other masculine response, where it's a love story. He's protective of her. She is a victim, and he's just completely devastated by seeing her hurt the way she is, and he wants justice for her. So I thought he was very -- I thought he was very noble. That was my image, that "Rape, A Love Story," that the love story is the second part, and the love story sort of carries the novel, and then her daughter falls in love with him sort of. I mean, she doesn't know him that well. He's much older. And all of her life she will have this image of this strong, protective man who saved her mother from further humiliation. Because to be a rape victim is bad enough, but then to be involved in a trial can be so brutal. It's incredibly brutal and humiliating. You probably know 50% of rapes are not even reported. Women can't go through what that woman was going to go through. Essentially -- since I'm assuming people who are watching this program haven't read the novel, essentially the rape victim is vilified in court and her integrity is called into question, and a criminal defense attorney is just shameless in inventing a kind of humiliating story to explain why she was in the park that night. So she was going to be raped again in the trial, and she couldn't do it. So she just backs off.

Ron Carlson: I'll say this. Those pages of the courtroom when the defense attorney is creating his scurrilous scenario, they made me angry.

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, it happens all the time. It happens all the time, whether it's the O.J. Simpson case or the Menendez brothers case.

Ron Carlson: Right.

Joyce Carol Oates: The Menendez brothers not only murder their parents but then they concoct, completely invent a story of sexual abuse by the father. It wasn't bad enough to kill the father, then they invent this story in the defense. So there's something in our adversarial criminal justice system that is very hard on victims and very painful, so I write about that.

Ron Carlson: The leap here – I mean, it's real interesting that Dromoor, officer Dromoor, is drawn into action. He begins to take action independent, and it's -- in a way it's his tribute to justice and his affection --

Joyce Carol Oates: Uh-huh.

Ron Carlson: -- for the woman. And it's a different affection than we might have thought from the title. It's a different kind of love, almost a new kind. He's operating from afar to make the world fair again for her.

Joyce Carol Oates: That's right.

Ron Carlson: So, the end of the story as he begins to act, I think that's dramatically thrilling, each of the beats. And I'm very interested in how you did that, where he finds the perpetrators one by one, and it's interesting how delicately you had him operate and create these acts of vengeance. One is almost totally off stage.

Joyce Carol Oates: Most of them are, yeah.

Ron Carlson: Tell me about that and the conception of that.

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, I'm telling a story, so the story moves around in different points of view. The rapists who are going to be punished themselves have their -- they have concocted their own, you know --

Ron Carlson: Sure.

Joyce Carol Oates: -- defenses, so to speak. So we're with them for a chapter or two, and we see how they perceive the world, and then they are destroyed, sort of punished for that. So basically it's like a story is telling itself and evolving in different ways, a little bit like a movie where the camera goes with somebody and then this person -- we're with the person for a certain period of time and then the story catches up to the person. And then the story moves on.

Ron Carlson: Well, the end is masterful. I mean, it's very capturing and this book in a way has a full arc, without Dromoor and Teena ever exactly exchanging a sentence.

Joyce Carol Oates: That's right. I wish I could do that again. I love writing novellas, but you know, novellas are hard to write. Have you ever written novellas?

Ron Carlson: No.

Joyce Carol Oates: They are really hard, because they are not short stories. They have a different rhythm, but they are not novels. They are somewhere in between, it's like 120 pages, and for some reason, that is a very difficult form to do. "The Turn of the Screw" is a great example of a wonderful novella, just perfect.

Ron Carlson: Let me remind everybody that we're talking with the writerJoyce Carol Oates: Carol Oates about her books "Rape," a novel, "A Love Story," and her essays on life, craft and art called "The Faith of a Writer." It says in "The Faith of a Writer" that you have a Henry James quote above your desk. First of all, is that right? Do you just say that or do you actually have it there?

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, it's somewhere on my wall now. I move things around.

Ron Carlson: Right.

Joyce Carol Oates: We work in the dark. We do what we can.

Ron Carlson: Do you know the rest?

Joyce Carol Oates: I know the rest, but I'm blanking on it.

Ron Carlson: I love it. We give what we have. Our doubt is our passion. Our passion is our task. And the rest is the mystery of art.

Joyce Carol Oates: The madness of art.

Ron Carlson: The madness of art.

Joyce Carol Oates: The rest is the madness of art. Yeah, that's very good. It suggests a kind of gropingness in improvising which I think is very true.

Ron Carlson: Well, the quote makes me think that if we're going to operate in the dark, that you launch into your projects without lights in every corner, that you don't know all of the contours of, say, a novel.

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, one can't know everything, I think. I do know a good deal.

Ron Carlson: You do?

Joyce Carol Oates: I try to.

Ron Carlson: I notice in talking about -- you've written several books based on lives or moments, the book about Marilyn Monroe, the book about Chappaquiddick. Do you want to talk about the inception of those in terms of how did you make each one of those transcend its incident or its, you know, the nonfiction kernel?

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, "Black Water," which is suggested by Chappaquiddick is a novella. And so it had a certain rhythm. And for me, the exciting part of that is it's like each chapter is very short, and each chapter is like prose poetry. It starts at the end. She's -- immediately in the first little paragraph, which is a complete chapter, she's in the car, in the water, and she's drowning. Then the whole novel is her almost hallucinatory memories and her experience. She's trying to get out of this car, and then she drowns and she died. The black water filled her lungs, and she died. So to me it was like a dirge, like a ballad where the refrain keeps going.

Ron Carlson: Right.

Joyce Carol Oates: The "Blonde" was a manuscript, was 1,400 pages long. That was supposed to be a novella also. It was going to be 110 pages, and when I got to a certain point, it was like post modernist, again with the short chapters. I realized that to write about Marilyn Monroe, who was a historic person with so much history –

Ron Carlson: Sure.

Joyce Carol Oates: -- and a very interesting career, that I should have a different form. So I basically went back and wrote it as an epic. To me, now it's an epic. It is has a different rhythm.

Ron Carlson: Different arc.

Joyce Carol Oates: Totally different.

Ron Carlson: It's not that the novella just kept going, it's that you reimagined, went back -

Joyce Carol Oates: You have to reimagine, that's right.

Ron Carlson: Right.

Joyce Carol Oates: That's right.

Ron Carlson: But in your stories, as you write a story, do you have that same control? What I'm asking, do you let yourself have less control in a short story than you do in a novel? Are there more surprises in stories?

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, it varies. I think when we work with voices, especially if you are working with a first person narrator, sometimes that narrator has a certain delicacy and imaginative swerve and flare that you want to allow space, and so you wouldn't really want to rein that in. And I think we discover that, I’m sure. Do you write in the first person once is in a while?

Ron Carlson: Yes, absolutely.

Joyce Carol Oates: It's really a very accessible form, very elastic and warm. Readers can respond to it very easily. I think it's the easiest way to write. I don't mean that it's easy in itself, but it's probably easier than some other forms; whereas a third person, I think is harder.

Ron Carlson: Exactly, exactly. In "Faith of a Writer," you talk about something we talk about quite a bit here and that is, doubt and the idea of the risk of failure, the idea of how you venture into a book, how you maintain your confidence, the Henry James quote speaks to that too, but by any standard you are successful as a writer, and by -- I've been a professor almost 20 years, and I've read a great deal of your work, and it's good work. I'm not the one to tell you but -- and so how can -- are you still thinking about failure? Is that still an active and operating issue for you?

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, most people who are artists of any kind, I think, live with failure. You know, you get up in the morning, and you have a few hours of work and you are not happy with what you've done, so you do it over again. You feel frustrated. And so, it's not that you are an absolute failure or an absolute success, but it's really like a process, and I'm sure that very distinguished writers like Savello, let's say, certainly Phillip Roth, that they have days when they are not happy with what they've done. There are people who have won Nobel prizes who nonetheless probably have periods where they are dissatisfied. So they don't think in terms of being a success in the past, but rather, that they may be failing in the present.

Ron Carlson: Right. It's always a companion, isn't it? There's a little question.

Joyce Carol Oates: A possibility.

Ron Carlson: Yeah, it's interesting. You are known for how much work you've done and that you've been prolific. I'm sure that word comes up all the time, but you also have talked about the fact that you just work, that there isn't anything -- any superlative that should be attached to that word, that you've worked steadily all of these years and that you've created this body of work. Do you want to talk about that, your attitude toward the work?

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, I really love literature. I love to read, and I love to write. I also like to work with young writers. I find that very exciting, and I sort of identify with young writers. I have about 22 writers at Princeton at the present time.

Ron Carlson: Sure.

Joyce Carol Oates: So I get imaginatively involved with their projects also, and I find it very exciting and -- do you feel that way about your students?

Ron Carlson: Well, it's interesting, because you think you should marshal your energies, but I found that the more I do and the more I read, the more I can do and the more I can read.

Joyce Carol Oates: That's right, that's right. I think so. It's not good to be obsessed just with your own work. When I come to university, I just forget about my work for a complete day, you know, I'm very involved with other people. But generally speaking, I really like to write, and so working with the medium of language is very pleasurable. It's like being a sculptor and working with clay. There is a certain pleasure. And as I said, I like to do handwriting, so it's probably something very visceral.

Ron Carlson: Right. Now, because this was a novella, does that mean the next book –

Joyce Carol Oates: Is a novel?

Ron Carlson: -- is going to be a tome?

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, the next book actually is. It's also set in Niagara Falls. It's a very ambitious novel that takes place over a period of years. It's a family novel. It's called "The Falls." So "The Falls" and "Rape, A Love Story" are both set in Niagara Falls. But the one is really big. There is a lot of history in it. Do you know what Love Canal was?

Ron Carlson: Yes.

Joyce Carol Oates: Yes, the pollution scandal.

Ron Carlson: Right.

Joyce Carol Oates: So the novel begins in the 1950s and moves into the Love Canal era, and there is an attorney who is involved with that litigation, and then he dies, and then it moves on. And so it deals with the moment at which Niagara Falls and Love Canal sort of became emblematic of a disaster. Because we think of Niagara Falls as one of the great wonders of the world, and very beautiful, but we don't think that the chemical factories in the city have basically ruined the air and the water and the soil.

Ron Carlson: Right. The Niagara Falls scares me every time I'm there. It's a little bigger than I thought.

Joyce Carol Oates: It's powerful.

Ron Carlson: It isn't cute at all.

Joyce Carol Oates: Oh, it's powerful. It's mesmerizing.

Ron Carlson: several times in this interview today you've talked about opening stories, and “Rape" starts with two terrible -- three pages of violence. The story about the -- the other story about Niagara Falls you wrote, written, and I'm not sure of the title, about the man approaching the falls? What's the name of that book?

Joyce Carol Oates: Oh, yes, "The Gatekeeper."

Ron Carlson: "The Gatekeeper" starts with a significant event.

Joyce Carol Oates: That's from my novel.

Ron Carlson: I'm sorry?

Joyce Carol Oates: That's from "The Falls." That's the first chapter.

Ron Carlson: Oh, it is?

Joyce Carol Oates: How did you see that?

Ron Carlson: I have no idea. I read a little much, right now, but the thing is, do you start with these -- on purpose with these pointed moments that then have to kind of in a way they are mopped up over the arc of the story? Is that part of your approach?

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, I kind of feel that the very first sentence and the first event causes everything that follows.

Ron Carlson: Right.

Joyce Carol Oates: So that it moves like this, as maybe in a movie, and then I would have some expository backflashes and descriptions and so forth, depending. If it's a novella, you don't have very much, but in a novel, you do more of that. I do a lot of research into politics, history and politics and popular culture, to make my big novels have a layer and density that the novellas don't have.

Ron Carlson: Fabulous. Do you do all of this research yourself?

Joyce Carol Oates: Oh, sure.

Ron Carlson: Good. The -- good. Then I'll just keep doing my own, not that my staff couldn't help me if they existed. Joyce Carol Oates, thank you very much for being here. It's been fun to talk to you about these wonderful books. We've been talking to Joyce Carol Oates about her novel "Rape, A Love Story," and "The Faith of a Writer," essays on writing, both of which I recommend. I'm Ron Carlson. I want to thank you for joining us for Books & Co.

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