Anne James has been telling stories all her life.
“Even before I knew how to write, I used to tell my daddy stories,” said James, the founder of beloved Siesta Key eatery Anna’s Deli. “It was a great part of my early childhood. It was just something we did. My mother used to say, ‘What am I going to do with you and your imagination?’”
More than eight decades later, James is still showing just what her imagination can do.
Now age 90, James has published her debut novel, The Marsh Bird. The book was released on July 27 — also her 90th birthday. Inspired by the Gullah Geechee people of South Carolina’s Lowcountry, the story follows a multiracial girl from Louisiana and her experiences as she becomes embraced by the Gullah community. James, who was born in Tampa, first visited the Beaufort, South Carolina area in 1993 and later moved there.
“I thought maybe I ought to write a little funny tale about what I just saw in the Lowcountry, all of the mystique and magic,” she said. “Maybe I’d write a little tale just to practice. It just kept going.”
James worked on the book on and off for the next quarter century. When her husband died 10 years ago, she began attending writers’ workshops, festivals and retreats. She caught the attention of Sarah Lawrence College’s Mary Morris, who helped her edit the story.
“She told me, ‘You have to finish this,’” said James.
She finished, and landed Virginia’s Koehler Books as a publisher. James’ copy editor there showed the book to legendary New York literary agent Mary Rusoff.
Rusoff read The Marsh Bird and then called James from the dentist’s office, offering to be her agent.
It’s just the latest adventure in James’ charmed life, which also includes her legendary status on Siesta Key. James founded Anna’s Deli in 1971.
“There was a huge need for a deli,” she said of her inspiration for the spot. “I had no intention of moving to Siesta Key and starting it, but we got hungry.”
Now that her literary career has blossomed, James is working on a memoir that will cover her time on Siesta. Her memories include a number of notable Sarasotans who were regulars at the deli.
“Bill Shroder, Gil Waters, they were very important (to the restaurant) — just their presence, being there every day for lunch,” she said. “They were all so much a part of what Siesta was back then. Syd Solomon, John McDonald, MacKinlay Kantor. I could just go on and on and on.”
The Marsh Bird is available in hardcover, paperback and on Kindle and other e-readers.