Claudia Rowe is a current reporter for the Seattle Times that spent 5 years in correspondence with serial killer Kendall Francois—a man convicted of killing eight sex workers and piling their bodies in the attic of a house he shared with his mother and two sisters in Poughkeepsie, NY. The corresponding memoir/true crime tale, The Spider and the Fly, is the story of Claudia's obsession with the case and the result of her 5-year examination into the mind of a serial killer.
While we here at CrimeHQ aren't serial killers, Claudia took time out of her busy schedule to talk to us as well! Read an exclusive interview with the author and reporter, and make sure to sign in a comment below for a chance to win a copy of this gripping true crime story!
When did you realize that the Kendall Francois case would turn into a book?
Pretty much from the moment I found myself standing in front of Kendall Francois’s home the morning after he’d confessed. For years I’d wanted to write about issues that The Spider and the Fly explores—cruelty, denial and the refusal to talk about decay in the center of town, under our very noses. As soon as I stood in front of that house, I had the very strong feeling that I’d walked into a story embodying all of those things. It was visceral, physical.
Who is your favorite fictional crime-solving sleuth?
I read mostly nonfiction now, but in younger days I devoured Ross Macdonald’s books, featuring the weary, somewhat depressive detective Lew Archer.
Tell us about some of your favorite true crime books.
The true crime I like gets inside people or opens up worlds in the way of great fiction. My favorites are also forms of social commentary. I was captivated by The Executioner’s Song as a younger writer. More recently, I’ve been fascinated by People Who Eat Darkness, which depicts the Tokoyo underworld; One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway—and Its Aftermath, an amazing examination of the political forces driving a mass murderer; Lost Girls, on sex workers in the internet age; and Blood Will Out, which examines the motivations of its author even more than his purported subject and tells a story of aspiration taken to extremes.
Between Serial, Making a Murderer, The Jinx, and others, true crime has never been more popular. Why do you think people can't get enough?
I think about this question constantly. And I think different things are at play for different people. For some, these tales provide a survival-story thrill—a sense of “What would you do?” if confronted with such a person, with the implication that by learning enough you can protect yourself. Others I think are reminded of traumas in their own lives, replaying them through these stories in a search for new answers.
For me, it’s about trying to understand the logic involved—because there is almost always a logic to these acts. It may not be a logic that makes sense to us or is comprehensible in any standard sense, but the men (mostly) who commit these acts are saying something with their crimes. They are acting out a long chain of influences stretching back through their lives, and understanding this path—the question of “How do you get there?”—has mesmerized me most of my life.
It's hard not to draw comparisons to Clarice Starling when reading your bio. Did you know that you'd be entering a four-year conversation with a convicted serial killer when you first approached Francois?
I had no idea at the beginning that the conversation between us would evolve into the powerfully formative relationship that it did. I thought, naively, that Francois would be happy to lay out his history for me and tie it all up with a nice, neat bow. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. But once I recognized that there were recognizably human aspects to him—his rage, loneliness, and paranoia, as well as his sense of humor and appreciation of the absurd—I was drawn in even more, I suspect, than I would have been if Francois had acted as I’d imagined at first.
What do you want readers to think or feel after finishing this book?
I hope people are moved to look closer at those who repel them, to push past revulsion and get beneath the surface. If more people truly felt seen, we might save ourselves a great deal of heartbreak. I’m surely not the first person to point this out, but the people we call monsters do possess varying degrees of humanity; and nice, normal folks are capable of inflicting great cruelty.
What are you currently reading?
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg, about New York in the ‘70s, when I was a kid.
Describe The Spider and the Fly in five words.
An effort to understand darkness.
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Claudia Rowe is an award-winning journalist who has been twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work has been published in numerous newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Mother Jones, Huffington Post, Woman’s Day, Yes! and Seattle’s alternative weekly, The Stranger. Currently, Claudia is a staff writer at the Seattle Times. Her coverage of social issues, race, and violence has been honored by the Society of Professional Journalists, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, and the Journalism Center on Children & Families, which awarded her a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.