The Story Behind the Story
(Warning! A few spoilers, here!!)
But in order for you to understand why I wrote this book, I have to tell you about the real woman who inspired it, my late mother-in-law, Frances Ponzo Metro.
Fran was many things: a self-taught pianist, a painter, a cook, a waitress, a card-shark. But like the best poker players, she kept her cards close to the vest. I remember chatting over dinner at one of our early meetings, when she suddenly said something like, “At the orphanage, we would sneak into the kitchens when the nuns weren’t looking, steal an egg and suck out the insides.” And I said, “Orphanage? Nuns? Eggs? What?” And she’d said, “Want another meatball?” and dumped about five more on my plate (as Sicilians want to do).
Fran’s stories of her life at Angel Guardian during the depression and through World War II emerged as little snippets here and there. I learned that when Fran was three years old, she was told her mother died so she and her brother and sister were taken to the orphanage.
I learned that she was removed briefly by her father, and then put back into the orphanage when her father allegedly tried to commit suicide.
And I learned that, even after the suicide attempt, her father visited every other week on “Visiting Sundays.” We have the visitor’s logs, and we have tons of photographs documenting that time, most of them taken by Fran’s father with his Brownie camera.
Fran’s story had everything that inspires me as a writer: family secrets, terrible betrayals, wicked stepmothers, ferocious girls, romantic boys, angels and devils, love and death, and a dramatic plot befitting any fairy tale.
At the time I began writing this book, I had only one novel under my belt, and I had never written a historical novel before. I had no idea what I was getting into. Maybe that’s a good thing.
For more than ten years, I worked on this story, but I kept getting it wrong. My early drafts were these horrible first-person slogs that were like: OMG, ORPHANAGES ARE SCARY AND BAD AND SCARY. I had a historical novelist friend read a version, and she gave it back to me, saying, in the nicest way possible, “Maybe don’t show this to anyone else.”
And it wasn’t until I figured out that that maybe telling a straight historical novel from the point-of-view of one girl wasn’t the best way to get at the emotional truth of Fran’s experience. That maybe what I really needed to do was find a way to expand the story, crack it open wide, while still maintaining the connection to the real Fran and her early life.
What began as the story of one girl is now a story about many girls. Girls with ambitions, brains, desires, talents, hungers. It is a story about how the world likes to punish girls, lock them up, for their appetites, even for their love. Especially for their love.
THIRTEEN DOORWAYS is about justice. When I first started this project all the way back in 2002—yes, I said 2002—I thought it was common knowledge that the Holocaust was a horror. That Nazis were unequivocally evil. But we seem to have forgotten this. As the daughter of a Jewish man and as a human being, I am absolutely appalled by our short memories. But maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. In The Lathe of Heaven Ursula K. Le Guin wrote: “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.” Justice is like that as well. It has to be made and remade all the time, made new, otherwise, it withers and dies. The wolves are always at the door.
Frances Ponzo Metro was like many of us: an ordinary person who lived an extraordinary life in extraordinary times but didn’t consider it so. She read and approved an earlier version of this novel and I kept her up to date on my progress until her death in 2018. My only regret is that she never got a chance to hold the book in her hands.
As I say in my author’s note: Every word of THIRTEEN DOORWAYS, WOLVES BEHIND THEM ALL is fiction. And every word is true.
Other Inspiration Photos and Research
Sign up for Laura's Newsletter
Note: this is a private list—your email address will not be shared,
and you can unsubscribe at any time.