David Heska Wanbli Weiden On Exploring A Lakota Worldview Through Crime Fiction

Texting with the author of BuzzFeed Book Club pick Winter Counts.

Last month, the BuzzFeed Book Club read and discussed David Heska Wanbli Weiden's debut thriller, Winter Counts. The book follows Virgil Wounded Horse, a man hired to deliver punishment on the Rosebud Indian Reservation when the US judicial system or Tribal Council comes up short. When his nephew Nathan — the son of his beloved late sister — overdoses on heroin laced with fentanyl, he sets off on a mission to find the man responsible, with the unexpected help of his ex-girlfriend. They find themselves in the midst of a complicated web of drug cartels, uncovering a dangerous world of money, power, and violence with far-reaching ramifications. It’s an absolutely riveting page-turner, compelling not only for the mystery at its core but also for its piercing criticism of the US's (mis)treatment of Native populations. (Check out an excerpt here.)

I chatted with David via text message about reaching a cross section of readers, balancing a story about a single Native nation with an exploration of "issues that transcend tribal boundaries," and how Neil Young helped him figure out the ending.

Hi David! It’s Arianna — thanks for taking the time to chat today. How are you doing this Monday?

I’m doing great! Thanks for taking the time to chat with me.

We’re wrapping up our Winter Counts discussion in the book club this week, and people have really loved it. What’s it been like to have your debut novel out in the world?

It’s been amazing and humbling and wonderful. I’ve had many readers contact me and tell me that they learned so much from the book, and that has been great. It seems like a cross section of folks have enjoyed the novel: crime fiction fans, people who like Indigenous fiction, and literary fiction readers. I’ve been most honored by Native readers who told me that they’ve moved closer to their own culture after reading the novel.

I love that. That’s something a few people have mentioned in the book club: It reads like a thriller and keeps you flipping through the pages, but they left it feeling like it expanded their understanding of a community that they’re not part of. Which is an amazing thing to do with a book, but I’d imagine it also might be an intimidating prospect — that people are kind of looking to you to represent an entire culture. Is that something you grappled with at all?

Absolutely. There are nearly 600 Native nations within the US alone, and my book only speaks to the culture of the Sicangu Lakota people. However, there are some common issues that unite all Natives: substandard healthcare, criminal justice issues, commodity food problems, etc. So I tried to give both a representation of the Lakota worldview but also touch upon these issues that transcend tribal boundaries.

I know you mentioned first writing about Virgil in a short story in 2014. How did you start to realize his story wasn’t finished, that these issues would come together around him?

I actually wrote the story in 2010 but didn’t publish it until 2014. After I published it, I tried to move on to other projects, but the character of Virgil just kept reappearing to me. It was strange, like he was speaking to me. I found myself thinking about his world and how he’d react to certain issues such as the Keystone pipeline protest. In other words, Virgil haunted me, and I decided in 2017 that I needed to bring him back and fully explore his world and those around him. Once I begin to write the novel, more and more issues and plot points came to me, and I actually had to discard certain themes as I felt the book was getting too unwieldy.

Can you talk about anything that was in an earlier draft but had to go?

Sure! There was an extended scene where Virgil and Marie go hunting for wild turnips. I loved the scene and thought that it added a lyrical interlude to the novel, but my editor requested that I cut 10,000 words from the entire thing, so that scene had to go. Sadly, I had to cut a lot of Tommy scenes as well. Earlier in the process, I had much more material on the flawed juvenile justice system on Native lands. It is a true mess, but there just wasn’t space to fit that in as well. I’m hoping to write a nonfiction piece on that issue at some point in the future.

Do you think you’ll spend more time writing about Virgil? I know a few book club members are hoping this might be book one of a series...

Yes, I am beyond thrilled to announce that there will be a sequel to Winter Counts! I’m working on it right now, and it will tentatively appear in 2022. BuzzFeed has been so great, so here’s a teaser for the readers: In the sequel, Marie will run for election to the Tribal Council in order to atone for the sins of her father. I should also note that I just finished a new short story featuring Virgil and Tommy; it will appear in the anthology Midnight Hour coming from Crooked Lane Books in February 2021.

That's so exciting. I can’t wait to share the news! I won’t keep you much longer, but one thing I wanted to ask about was the music! It’s really present as something that’s important to your characters, and I saw on your site you even have a Winter Counts Spotify playlist — I’d love to hear a bit about what music means to you and your writing process.

I’m a wannabe musician but learned early on that my talent lies in appreciating music, not playing it! Having said that, music plays a big role in the novel, and I gave a lot of thought to what type of music each of the characters listens to. Virgil is a heavy metal guy, whereas Marie likes alternative rock and goth. Nathan, of course, loves rap music. Of all of these, Marie’s taste is closest to my own. I’ve written about this before, but I was in residence at the MacDowell colony in New Hampshire and could not figure out the ending to the book. I started playing a classic album by Neil Young, Tonight’s the Night, and the mood of that album helped me write those final scenes.

Yes! I love that (possibly because I’m a big Neil Young fan).

A quick note about him! He has a massive 10-CD/digital box set coming out soon, and I’m going to ask my girlfriend to get me that for my holiday present.

Oh man, great tip, THANK YOU. OK, last question: How would you describe Winter Counts in three emojis?

💊 ☕️ 💑

Winter Counts is a tough one to emoji-fy (?), but I think this nails it. Thank you again, and congratulations on the sequel! Can’t wait to check it out. Great talking to you!

It was my pleasure! Really great to chat with you here, and I want to thank you, BuzzFeed, and all of the readers for their wonderful support of the novel! Wopila! ●

Parts of this interview have been edited for length and/or clarity.

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