“I heard from so many people who said that I was the first trans person that they had ever seen on television,” said Schneider from her sunny apartment in Oakland, Calif., where she lives with her wife and two cats. “I started to become more aware of the responsibility I had as an inadvertent representative of the trans community.”
After winning more than $1.6 million in prize money, Schneider decided to quit her job as a software engineer (“an easy decision,” she laughed) and embrace her new role as a public figure. This month, she will add “author” to her résumé with the release of her memoir, “In the Form of a Question: The Joys and Rewards of a Curious Life.”
While her time on “Jeopardy!” factors into the book in a variety of ways, the game show never dominates the proceedings. In fact, Schneider spends the bulk of the book exploring her gender transition, her upbringing in Ohio and even her musings on pop culture.
“I love trivia, but it’s not the thing I’m most interested in or passionate about,” Schneider explained. “It’s just the thing I got famous for.”
The Washington Post sat down with Schneider to discuss her writing process, what she hopes readers take away from her story and the future of “Jeopardy!”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity:
Q: The act of writing is a topic that comes up frequently in your book — you both loved and hated it growing up based on different teachers you had. Now that you’ve written this memoir, how would you describe your relationship with writing?
A: One thing I’ve learned: It’s hard! When I’ve done it for my own amusement, it was fun. If I got bogged down on something, I would just stop working on it. But when you actually have to finish things, it’s a different pressure and challenge.
That being said: When I was pitching this book, I said my goal was hopefully in, like, five years, I can describe myself as a writer and not feel embarrassed about it, and that could really be what I do. And that remains the case — even more so. I found it very rewarding, and despite the fact I can see all the flaws in my book and things I’m disappointed with, I’m proud of it and I feel like I showed I do have some skill and things to say.
Q: You chronicle the circuitous route it took you to ultimately realize that you are a woman. What do you hope readers take away from your story of transitioning?
A: One thing I wanted to communicate is just the fact that we are full human beings that have a range of experiences, including some that are not as societally accepted. Not every trans person, obviously, but a disproportionate number have experimented with sex and drugs and things like that, and I wanted to show that it’s okay and not incompatible with success — to tell a trans person’s story as it really is, and not just the sort of simplified version that I showed on TV.
And for the other audience: What would I have wanted to know about trans people and the experience earlier in my life? Especially the fact that you can go through this period of uncertainty and have doubts.
Some trans people, before they can even speak, are clear about their gender identity — but not all of us are, and I wasn’t. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t true, it’s just a different experience. That’s something I would have loved to have known sooner than I did.
Q: You mention that you’ve become an inadvertent representative of trans people. Is it difficult to have that weight on your shoulders, or more so exciting?
A: Certain aspects of both. I’m feeling more the difficult side of it these days. And, in particular, what I’m feeling is guilt, that I’m not doing better at it. That I’m not being more active and vocal and speaking out more about what’s going on with our community. It’s a thing that is scary to do — and I’ve been sort of allowing that fear to rule me a bit, more than I wish I had been.
At the same time, the most gratifying part of all of this has been knowing that I have made some kind of difference — in parts of the country that, honestly, I’m afraid to go to.
Q: In the introduction, you say that you hope one day to disagree with or even disavow some of the statements in your book. Is keeping an open mind something you want readers to take away from this?
A: In the original conception of this book, that was an even bigger part of it. It’s one of the most important lessons: If more people were willing to be wrong about things, we’d be a healthier society, and it’s something that I know personally from just having been wrong about so many things.
To an extent, also, the introduction was a way of letting myself say what I really thought without panicking about it being taken the wrong way. Like, I say this stuff about drug use and normalizing it. In 10 years, or if I have kids someday, am I still going to feel like that was the right attitude? At the moment, I think so, but I could certainly imagine believing otherwise. So I wanted to be up front about saying this represents where I am right now.
Q: Recently, you said that you’d be boycotting appearing on “Jeopardy!” during the WGA strike. Have you also boycotted watching it?
A: I’m not boycotting watching it, I just … don’t tend to watch it much anymore! Partly because I’m not training to be on the show in the same way. And also, I lived “Jeopardy!” nonstop for about six months and got burned out on it.
Q: The show has really changed in recent years, partly thanks to you ushering in an era of super champions. How would you describe the show’s evolution, and what do you hope to see in its future?
A: One huge component of that evolution was James Holzhauer’s run. I had been, for years, sitting on my couch wondering, “Why is everyone betting so conservatively?” Then, when I was on the show, I realized why: because it’s scary! But James got people thinking about optimal gameplay. Over time, enough people started getting on the “Jeopardy!” subreddit and soaking in gameplay theories.
So that’s been part of the evolution, people taking it more seriously — which I know not everybody loves, exactly. There are definitely people who appreciated it more when it was just people showing up on a little vacation from their day job and giving it their best shot. But I certainly think it’s great. It worked out for me, but also, as a fan, I want to see people competing at the highest level.
As far as the future of the game, I would really love to see not just the contestant pool, but champion pool continue to diversify and look more like America.
Q: From what you say in your book, it seems you can’t really pal around with Ken Jennings, given that he’s the host of the show.
A: The laws they passed after the old quiz show scandals are pretty serious. So, yeah, there’s a fair amount of limitations on what kind of contact Ken can have with any potential future contestants. But I really felt like we hit it off as best we could in those circumstances, and I kind of hope to retire from “Jeopardy!” at some point so we can hang out.
Q: Maybe even play some bar trivia with him?
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