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"Jeopardy!" champion Amy Schneider on her new memoir and what it takes to win



You know that sound. It's the Daily Double. Here's the clue. This trans person is a software engineer with ADD who's won more than a million dollars over 40 consecutive games on "Jeopardy!" and then a Tournament of Champions. Let's ask our guest. What's the answer now in the form of a question?

AMY SCHNEIDER: Who is Amy Schneider?

SIMON: You get this all the time?

SCHNEIDER: Yeah, it's not uncommon. No.

SIMON: All right. Amy Schneider has all these qualities and achievements. She's the author of the new memoir "In The Form Of A Question: The Joys And Rewards Of A Curious Life." She joins us now from Oakland. Thanks so much for being with us.

SCHNEIDER: Oh, thanks for having me.

SIMON: You have ruminations on different kinds of intelligence in this book. So what kind does it take to be a "Jeopardy!" champion?

SCHNEIDER: Well, I think, you know, one of the kinds is just having a good memory, which is to some extent genetic but can certainly be trained. But I think it is also just a broad-mindedness, you know, curiosity, as I kind of say in the subtitle. And I always say that to some extent, you can't study for "Jeopardy!" You just sort of have to live the kind of life that exposes you to a lot of different information.

SIMON: Yeah. And do we make a mistake earlier in our lives by kind of segmenting ourselves into different slots and different kinds of intelligence, closing ourselves off from others?

SCHNEIDER: I think definitely. I mean, I think it's, you know - all the time I hear from people, oh, you're so much smarter than I am, and that sort of thing. And I hear this sort of negative self-judgment in their voices. And, you know, to me, I think that, you know, yes, on a particular benchmark of intelligence, the sort that applies to "Jeopardy!," I'm certainly, I would say, I'm above average. I think that that's been sort of proven. But I think that there's so many other ways of defining smart. And, you know, it's something that - starting when we're in school, like, this particular type of intelligence that's the sort of, like, acquisition and retention of facts kind of gets prioritized and valorized. And all the other ways of being intelligent get discounted. And, you know, in our actual lives outside of school, all of them are pretty equally important.

SIMON: Being somebody with attention deficit disorder wouldn't seem to be a great commendation for being a "Jeopardy!" champion. So what did we miss there?

SCHNEIDER: Well, you know, I think for me, it was actually a huge help. Because I have ADD, I'm easily bored. And one of the ways of dealing with that constant boredom is just, for example, just going on Wikipedia and clicking around and finding new facts to learn and new little articles to read and be interested in. And even in the course of the show itself, you know, people with ADD have trouble focusing. But when they do get focused, they can be extremely focused. And in the course of playing the game, that's really important to stay focused and not get distracted and not think about that the cameras are rolling or how the game is going and everything like that.

SIMON: You grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and were a theater kid...


SIMON: ...Middle school and high school. Did playing other people help you to come to terms with being you?

SCHNEIDER: Absolutely it did, I mean, in one very direct way. I think the - really, the first seed that really got me seriously questioning my gender identity was playing Francis Flute in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Francis Flute is the rude mechanical who's forced to play a role of a woman in a play within a play. And so every night I was going on stage in a dress and a wig and makeup, and that kind of, like, triggered something in me. And I realized that I found it satisfying in a way that I couldn't really understand at the time but that was extremely compelling.

SIMON: You went to Catholic schools and have warm words for most of your teachers and the education you received. But help me understand now - I understand how you - anyone can be an atheist who does not believe there's any consciousness in the universe but our own. But you also believe in tarot and parts of astrology. That's the part I can't put together.

SCHNEIDER: Well, I mean, I think that, you know, in terms of tarot specifically, you know, what I think about it is - it is not that I believe that the tarot deck has supernatural powers of any particular kind. But what I believe is that it's a tool for self-reflection. It's a tool for understanding yourself. It's kind of a random story generator. You turn up some cards, and they kind of tell a story. And in the process of attempting to apply that story to your life, you can reach discoveries about yourself that, you know - not there's no other way you could have gotten there. But it's a very kind of direct path to getting yourself out of your usual patterns of thinking and looking at things in a new way.

SIMON: You say, looking at your life and being who you are, for someone who is transgender, life can be a kind of time travel. How do we understand that?

SCHNEIDER: Yeah. It's - you know, I kind of think of it as a time traveler, like, a parallel universe sort of thing. You know, when I transitioned as an adult, you know, it was kind of a struggle to reconnect myself with sort of my past self. On the one hand, I understood myself to have always been, you know, a girl, a woman. And yet at the same time, I fully remembered most of my life when, if I had been asked, I would have said, no, of course not. I felt like I had these two lives that have kind of become disconnected when I transitioned, when I came to terms with my gender identity. And actually, like, writing a memoir turned out to be a great way of helping process that - you know, telling the stories of my past self. But the voice telling the story is me, my current self. It helped me reconnect them and see that I have always been the same person even as my understanding of myself has changed.

SIMON: May I ask what's the most interesting or unexpected thing you've learned recently?

SCHNEIDER: That's a good question.

SIMON: And it can be totally mundane as...

SCHNEIDER: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...Something you learned while scrolling.

SCHNEIDER: Talking about tarot, I got into tarot from the book "Seventy-Eight Degrees Of Wisdom" by the author Rachel Pollack. And it was not until very recently that I learned that Rachel Pollack was also a trans woman. And that just was something that, like, really, like, blew my mind that this author that had meant so much to me happened to share that aspect of my identity and I hadn't had the slightest idea.

SIMON: Amy Schneider - her new memoir, "In The Form Of A Question." Thank you so much for being with us.

SCHNEIDER: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF WONDO SONG, "GROUPIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

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