July 21, 2020
Which family members were you the most excited about being able to interview? Would you say that they were supportive of the story being told?
I was lucky enough to gain the cooperation of Chris Watts’ family early on. I was in Spring Lake, North Carolina researching the book when I saw Chris’s mother Cindy mowing her lawn. I went over and introduced myself and Cindy said she couldn’t talk at the moment, so I gave her my card. She called me later that day and embarked on an ongoing interview for the next year.
Her insight into the tragedy of Shanann and her two granddaughter’s deaths was invaluable and she also facilitated interviews with Chris’s father Ronnie, sister Jamie and some of the people that knew them the best.
Cindy and Ronnie were as confused and baffled at what had happened as everyone else, as they struggled to make sense of what Chris had done. They also felt railroaded by the Colorado legal system, who refused to allow them any contact with Chris before his guilty pleas.
I think they wanted me to tell the real story of what had happened and how their son never received a single psychiatric evaluation as to why he had killed his family.
Was there anyone that you wish you could’ve spoken to that you were unable to reach?
I would love to have spoken to Shanann’s family, but unfortunately they did not return my calls. I totally understood as they are still recovering from this dreadful ordeal.
During your research, were you able to talk to Chris Watts directly?
No I didn’t, although I contacted him through his family but he did not wish to talk.
Were you able to attend Chris Watts’s trial?
Actually there was no trial as Chris did a plea deal to admit killing his family in return for having the death penalty taken off the table.
What surprised you the most about this case?
I think I was most surprised at how Shanann so successfully created an ongoing image of the perfect family on social media and how far from reality it really was.
How much traveling did you do for your research? Were you able to visit any key locations mentioned in the book?
I spent a month on the road researching the book, travelling to North Carolina and Colorado to get a feel for Shanann and Chris’s lives and talk to as many people as I could.
What do you personally feel was the final trigger that moved Chris Watts to murder his family? Was it his wife’s pregnancy, his affair, etc.?
Personally, I think what drove Chris Watts to killing his family was Shanann’s pregnancy, which ironically he had previously told her he wanted. There was also a financial motive as they were getting deeper into debt and having another child would be very expensive. His affair with Nichol Kessinger also played a big part, but as in so many of the books I have written the big question is: why not get a divorce instead of resorting to murder?
Imagine that the Watts family lived 30 years ago, before social media. Do you think their story could have ended differently if the added stress of looking like a perfect family on social media for Shanann’s business had not existed?
I don’t think this tragic story would have happened before social media. Shanann was an astute businesswoman who used social media for her livelihood. A key part of her job was to hard sell Thrive on social media and create almost a soap opera of the perfect family. I think the pressures on Chris to participate in her videos etc., also contributed to what ultimately happened.
With over 25 books under your belt, you’re quite a prolific writer. Have you ever started researching a crime but then decided to not write a book about it? If yes, what was the crime?
Luckily, I have never had to abandon a true crime book yet.
Has COVID changed how your ability to research and write your next book? If yes, what kinds of adaptation(s) have you made?
So far it hasn’t affected me but I’m hoping that the travel situation will relax, as I love to do on-the-ground research where the crimes took place so I can get a real feel for what happened.
You mentioned in a prior interview for The Family Next Door that compartmentalizing things is key when researching disturbing crimes. Was there any particular aspect of this case that you struggled to compartmentalize?
There were a lot of aspects of Chris Watts’ case that I found highly disturbing. It was hard to compartmentalize when I was on the phone with a sobbing Cindy Watts, who was still trying to understand why her son had done it. She never saw any hint that he would be capable of such a horrendous act.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a book about Thomas Gilbert Jr., who was convicted last year of murdering his father, who ran a hedge fund. The Gilbert Family were highly prominent in New York society and mental illness played a huge part in what happened.
What are you currently reading?
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larsen.