Director of Alumni Engagement, Heather Sammons, recently caught up with Claire McNear ’07 about her first book coming out in November, Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy!.
On November 10 you have a new book coming out, Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy! Congratulations on such a feat! What led you to write a book about the behind the scenes of Jeopardy!?
I’m a staff writer at The Ringer, where I cover a mix of sports and culture. I started writing about Jeopardy! a few years ago, and I joke that it’s a perfect combination of the two—a TV show that is also, if you squint hard enough, a sport.
The more I wrote about Jeopardy!, the more I was blown away by what goes into the show—both the actual process of making it (somehow, this totally staid game show is reliably one of the biggest ratings draws on TV) and, especially, how hard contestants work to prepare before they play. To my enduring amazement/bafflement, the more in the weeds I got with my Jeopardy! coverage, the more people seemed to connect with what I was writing. It’s this strange, lovely thing where just about everybody has a Jeopardy! memory of some kind, even if they’re not necessarily a big trivia person or game show fan.
There were so many threads I wanted to pull, and eventually, that became this book. With the news of Alex Trebek's tragic passing this weekend, I hope that it can honor his work and legacy and all that he did to make Jeopardy! into the iconic institution that it is.
When you were a student at MA you had your first brush with journalism. At what point did you know you wanted to be a writer, and did you ever imagine you would write a book? Is Answers in the Form of Questions the first book you have written?
Answers in the Form of Questions is indeed my first book—hopefully with more on the horizon. (There might be some short-term amnesia about how many all-nighters this one entailed.)
I always loved English—some of my favorite classes were with Chris Alexander and Rob Melrose, who taught a one-off deep dive into the works of Virginia Woolf. And I spent entirely too much time editing the yearbook, which was my first time doing anything that even vaguely looked like journalism. The number of Saturday mornings I spent in the computer lab laying out pages is fairly horrifying in retrospect. I even convinced MA to let me spend Minicourse just working on the yearbook one year.
At the University of Chicago, I wrote for and edited the student newspaper and did the same in grad school at University College London. I spent a long time telling myself that there weren’t any jobs in journalism, so why should I bother? But after grad school, I did a journalism-adjacent internship at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, and I realized writing was the only thing I really wanted to do. So I started pitching freelance stories with a focus on the weird, and was lucky enough to have those eventually lead to a staff job. And now I’ve written a whole weird book.
While doing research for the book you must have heard many wild stories and spoken to many celebrities, but what has been your most memorable and why?
I knew Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had been on Jeopardy!, but I didn’t realize just how good he was. He’s been a Celebrity Jeopardy! contestant four times and won twice, once even correcting Alex Trebek onstage about the finer points of Danish geography. I was able to interview him about it, and he also made a sports comparison: that watching really good Jeopardy! contestants is a lot like watching really good basketball players—just witnessing someone play that well, and knowing that it’s possible, is dazzling in its own right.
I also got to ask him about one of my favorite moments in Jeopardy! history—when he guessed himself during a tournament … and was wrong. (He was a good sport about it; he says in the moment he thought it might be a trick question.)
What all was involved in order for you to write about the behind the scenes of Jeopardy!? Give us the details!
I spent about a year and a half researching the book on set. That meant a good chunk of time literally behind the scenes at Jeopardy!—interviewing Alex Trebek in his dressing room, watching the filming of a tournament, and getting to ask dumb questions all day long, which is a journalist’s dream come true.
A lot of the reporting involved traveling to different places and seeing who I could meet there. I went to an annual event in Las Vegas called Trivia Nationals that draws a lot of former and aspiring Jeopardy! contestants and was able to sit in on a full day of auditions and interview the Jeopardy! producers who pick contestants about what they’re actually looking for. (Hint: not just smarts!) And I went to a bar in Santa Monica called O’Brien’s that is famous for its uber-challenging weekly pub quiz, which draws a lot of storied Jeopardy! champions. By that point I had gotten to know a lot of champs, so I was lucky enough to be invited to join a team of regulars—who cruised to victory and gave me an equal share of the prize, despite me spending the whole night with my jaw more or less on the floor.
I spent a lot of time interviewing contestants—I spoke to at least 100 over the course of writing. There were certain facets of the show that I knew I wanted to feature, like contestants who’ve just found out that they’ll be taping in a few weeks and are training as they count down the days, and players in the hours or days immediately after winning or losing. It took a long time to find the right people to tell those stories, and even when you’ve found those people, you have to take the time to build up a sense of rapport and trust so they feel confident that you’ll tell their story the right way. For so many contestants, getting on Jeopardy! is a lifelong dream, so if they lose or their games don’t go the way they hoped, there’s a lot of heartbreak.
Have you ever wanted to be a Jeopardy! contestant?
I love trivia, but I’m thoroughly lousy at it—although during my senior year at MA, I was on a quiz bowl team with Sam Gensburg ’07 and Sam Birer ’08 that came in first place in an intra-MA tournament (thanks entirely to the Sams). I actually went through the whole Jeopardy! audition process for the book, so I can say with total certainty that I will never, ever be a contestant. Thank goodness.
When you’re not writing, what are you doing for fun?
I taught my cat to give high fives, which I suppose actually wasn’t very fun for either of us, so...
Is there anything else you would like to share with your fellow MA alums?
If John Hicks (or, now that he’s retired, any other kind, wise teacher) suggests that taking AP Chemistry is a bad idea…believe him (or her). Follow your own personal weirdness.
We wish all the best for Claire and can’t wait to see what she writes about next. In the meantime, you can check out Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy! on Amazon or order it through the Book Passage.
What are you up to? If you’re a MA alum and would like to be interviewed, please reach out to Heather Sammons at email@example.com.