– Words by John Atkinson Photographs by Don Denton
Victoria author Mary Spilsbury Ross is proving age is just a number having recently celebrated the release of her debut novel, No Intermission, at aged 80.
Spilsbury Ross, who danced her way around Europe and the Middle East in her 20s and still does a daily barre more than 50 years later, wrote a bestselling cookbook, Frugal Feasts, in 1996.
But there were no plans to pen a novel until her daughter, in the Vancouver film industry, voiced a need for quality screenplays and persuaded her mom to get writing again.
A 2017 screenwriting course at Camosun College got Spilsbury Ross’s creative juices flowing—and moulding a screenplay synopsis based on her career as that travelling dancer in the ’60s, she realized writing the book first was optimal.
“I’ve always loved writing and have danced since age five—it’s been a lifelong passion,” says Spilsbury Ross, also greatly inspired by the iconic Liza Minelli movie Cabaret. “So blending the two for No Intermission has been fun.
“The screenwriting course really helped me write the book with a movie in mind. I’d say to myself ‘write as though you’re the camera and describe what you’re seeing, adding dialogue and creating compelling action.’”
No Intermission’s protagonist, Maggie, is a dancer from Vancouver Island’s North Oyster—where Spilsbury Ross’s family own a summer cottage—and the novel spans two years of her life dancing in Europe, from age 19 to 21.
Spilsbury Ross sets the story post-World War II from 1963, when she herself danced modern jazz for troupes in 11 countries, including Italy, Germany, France and Egypt.
But she also takes Maggie on a journey of mystery and suspense, with the smuggling of Nazi-looted masterpiece paintings by the likes of Picasso, Degas and Van Gogh.
Spilsbury Ross began dance lessons at seven (ballet, then tap and acrobatics) and later trained in Victoria at the Wynne Shaw Dance School.
“Up three flights to the top of the Hamley Building (still there now). That was my happy place. On Saturdays I took classes all day, then later had modern jazz lessons from the famous choreographer Brian MacDonald. That was a highlight of my dancing life.”
Spilsbury Ross was inspired to turn pro by a need to pay off library fines collected at UBC, while studying European history, theatre and fine art. Her summer of ’63 with the Vancouver Opera Society and Theatre Under the Stars paved the way.
Her dad hoped she’d become a teacher, but “I had to give dancing a shot,” she says. “I just felt so full of life and like I hadn’t done anything or been anywhere. So I took off.”
Spilsbury Ross who, in her ninth decade, does her 20-minute morning barre to Vivaldi or Chopin, has also, incredibly, fought off cancer three times.
She says her dance training, a positive attitude and a powerful guardian angel have saved her life—she was given six months to live when first diagnosed at 33.
“The dancing gives you an inner strength and ensures you never give up. I refused to accept the cancer diagnosis. I had young kids and simply said ‘this is not happening; I’m sticking around.’”
Spilsbury Ross, Victoria born-and-bred, raised a son and daughter with celebrated surgeon husband Michael at a home near 10 Mile Point—where she’s lived for 54 years. Michael sadly died in 2020, but championed No Intermission.
“Michael was so encouraging and would read draft chapters while I was cooking dinner. When he laughed or smiled I knew I’d got it right.”
When not writing or dancing, Spilsbury Ross is busy gardening, painting or cooking and working on another book project—Dining With My Dog—“co-authored” by her Jack Russell, Pepper.
“I want everyone to read No Intermission and enjoy it,” she adds. “And, with a pinch of luck, someone will read it and say ‘this would make a great movie.’”
To learn more and buy a copy of No Intermission, visit: mspilsburyross.com