Friend of the Month: JJ Schmidt

JJ Schmidt is a longtime Friend of the Fair. Born in Los Angeles, he moved with his family to South Florida at the age of 2 so we’re claiming him as one of our own. After 30-plus years in corporate America, he completed his doctorate at FIU’s school of business in 2021 and now works as an independent consultant. He also teaches as an adjunct at a couple of universities.

How did you first learn about Miami Book Fair?

It was probably like 25 years ago. Back when people used to get the newspaper on a regular basis, there used to be a weekend section on Fridays, like an insert, and I remember reading about the Book Fair and I thought it sounded interesting. I lived in Broward at the time and decided to drive down and see what it was about.

How long have you been a Friend and why did you join?

Well, I didn’t start out at the Publisher level, but it’s been at least 20 years. There are certain things that I think are uniquely South Florida, that are charitable, nonprofit-type organizations, and I think what appealed to me was the Fair brought together many things that I like. I like reading and learning, and I think books are very important. What astonished me when I first went to the Fair was how many people I saw there. South Florida is a very diverse community, and you get to see such a great cross-section of it there, coming together to participate in something that’s really cool.

Which FOTF benefit do you most appreciate?

If I’m being completely honest, it’s being able to sit up front. [laughs] And having access to tickets to certain things in advance is also very helpful. I’ve been in a situation where not planning ahead – who would think that a huge space like Chapman could sell out? – meant I didn’t get seats.

How do you Book Fair?

I kind of have a routine. Usually for Evenings With during the week, I try to bring friends of mine to those events so I can introduce people to Book Fair, because some people still don’t know it’s not just walking around buying books. On Saturday, my dad and I have been going together for like 15 years –he’s 81 – and that’s kind of been our tradition. I let him guide the schedule; last year he really wanted to see Larry Csonka and the bonus was getting to see Dave Barry at the same time. Sunday I do like to go on my own because I’ll just frantically go from room to room and I’d probably wear somebody out if they were with me. I get down there first thing in the morning and stay until the last session. And I don’t know if you were there on Sunday last year –

Are you going to talk about the monsoon we had?

Yes! [laughs] I was very lucky, I have an SUV with high-profile tires, but leaving in the dark and driving in that rain was a little crazy. I’ve never seen it rain like that; actually, I take that back – I never saw it rain like that until earlier this month.

What’s an MBF moment or experience that really stands out for you?

I have repeated this story often, because it’s not something that people would expect to happen at a book fair. In the days before there were tickets for Chapman, what used to happen was that people would go and they’d kind of camp out and stay in there all day. So it got progressively harder and harder to get a seat. This was the year Ralph Nader was speaking and then right after him was Chris Matthews. Nobody wanted to leave; Book Fair was almost ready to call the police [laughs] because they had to get people out of the room so that they could get the next group in. So when Chris Matthews got on stage he made a joke about it and said, “This is like the 1968 Democratic National Convention” – you know, with rioting – and that it wasn’t something you’d expect at Book Fair.

Tell me about the last great book you read.

I’m a history person. The last person I saw that Sunday at last year’s Fair was Stacy Schiff – I think I’ve seen her three or four times now at the Fair – and the last book I read was the one she presented, the one about Sam Adams, which was great. She’s a fantastic writer; she makes history very interesting. Right now I’m reading The Many Daughters of Afong Moy by Jamie Ford. It’s very interesting; it’s multigenerational, there’s kind of an immigrant story that goes through it, it’s a female-driven narrative. I’m halfway through it and enjoying every minute of it. I highly recommend it.

If you have children or had children in your life with whom you spent a lot of time, what’s the one book you made sure to introduce to them/read to them?

First off, everybody at Christmas gets a book, much to the chagrin of my nieces and nephews. [laughs] I usually try and find something at the Fair that zeroes in on the things they’re interested in. I have one niece in college and another niece in middle school and the one book that I’ve given to both of them now is Azar Afisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran. For younger girls who are in school, to read something like that and understand how it’s not so easy to go to school in some places, is important. She’s another person I’ve been able to see at Book Fair and she’s a great storyteller.

Who’s a favorite author of yours and if you could ask them anything, what would that be?

Where they get their inspiration. Where does a fiction writer find that and how do they go about crafting that narrative? For someone like Stacy Schiff – and she talked about this a little bit last year – what’s interesting to me is how she decides what she’s going to write about next. How do you go from Cleopatra to the Salem witches to Sam Adams? And what’s the balance between time spent on research and time spent on writing? That’s what I’m interested in finding out.

Interview by Elisa Chemayne Agostinho.

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