David Heska Wanbli Weiden on His Crime Novel Winter Counts

David Heska Wanbli Weiden: pretty busy this literary awards season.
David Heska Wanbli Weiden: pretty busy this literary awards season. Aslan Chalom

The Edgar Award, as Denver author and Edgar finalist David Heska Wanbli Weiden puts it, is “like the Oscars for crime writers. It’s like our National Book Award.” So it was a big deal when Weiden’s thriller Winter Counts was shortlisted. It’s an even bigger deal that he’s only the second Native American writer to be named a finalist in the prize’s storied history.

Not that the Edgars are the only organization recognizing Weiden’s work — far from it. He’s already won a Lefty Award for Best Debut Novel, and the Western Writers of America presented his book with the Best Contemporary Novel and Best Debut Novel awards. Still pending is a cornucopia of other awards: the Barry, the Thriller, a Colorado Book Award, a Reading the West prize, and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Weiden is going to be busy — and he might want to be making space on his fireplace mantel for all those pen-shaped trophies and whatnot.

We spoke with Weiden, who’s both a writer and a professor of Native American Studies and Political Science at Metropolitan State University, about his writing, how cultural identity affects his work, and the many award nominations he and Winter Counts are rightfully juggling.

Westword: Your recent novel, Winter Counts, has been nominated all over the place for too many awards to count, and has already won a couple. Before we jump into the book itself, what does it feel like to experience the whirlwind of accolades for your work?

David Heska Wanbli Weiden: I’m just really honored and grateful. It’s certainly wonderful that the novel had strong sales and reviews, but I was most touched by readers’ reactions to the book. One Native woman sent a video where she started crying because the book meant so much to her — she said that she finally felt seen. I’ve received many other touching messages, and I’ve met with dozens of virtual book clubs where I’ve had the privilege to communicate with readers and talk about the novel. No doubt, this has been the best part of the entire process.

Writing is so solitary an act, and then all of a sudden it can become so…not. How do you handle that?

Really good point. I wasn’t aware of how abruptly an author has to pivot from writing alone in an office to handling numerous social media events, interviews, television appearances and other forms of publicity. Not to mention, my book was released just a few months after the pandemic hit, so the publishing industry had to quickly pivot to this new reality. I had my entire book tour canceled, but I ended up doing many more virtual appearances than had been originally planned. Because I work full-time and have two kids, it was challenging to fit all this in, and I had to give up pretty much every form of leisure activity I’d previously enjoyed. I’m looking forward to watching a movie again!

Talk a little about the inception of Winter Counts. How did the book come about, from idea to finished novel?

The idea came from my work as a professor of Native American Studies. I’ve been teaching about the broken criminal justice system on reservations for years, and I’ve found that almost no one knows about the U.S. federal laws that harm reservation communities. Specifically, the Major Crimes Act requires Native nations to refer prosecution of felony crimes to the FBI and U.S Attorneys’ Offices. But these federal agencies decline to prosecute a large number of these cases, which means that the criminal is released and is free to offend again. The families of the victims naturally want justice, and so private vigilantes — like my hero Virgil Wounded Horse— have popped up in some communities. These enforcers will enact some street justice — for a price. In the novel, Virgil charges one hundred dollars for each bone he breaks and tooth he knocks out, but he beats up child molesters for free.

The idea to write a fictionalized account of reservation justice came to me about a decade ago. I wrote and published a short story that introduced Virgil, but he dies at the end of that piece. But he proved to be a really compelling character, and I couldn’t stop thinking about him. About four years ago, I decided to resurrect Virgil and expand the story into a full-blown novel. I spent some time developing new characters, including Virgil’s former girlfriend, Marie Short Bear; her enemy, Delia Kills in Water; and others. The novel just poured out of me; I finished it in about eighteen months, then was fortunate to have a number of publishing houses interested in the book. I signed a contract with Ecco/HarperCollins and revised the manuscript while in residency at the artist colonies MacDowell and Ragdale. I’m tremendously grateful to the team at Ecco, who have been great to work with every step of the way.
What changed in the writing process? No spoilers, of course, but readers and fellow writers alike are always interested in the narrative roads not taken.

There were a few big changes that occurred while writing drafts of the book. In early drafts, I realized that I hadn’t fully fleshed out Marie Short Bear, who’s one of the major characters in the novel. I spent a huge amount of time thinking about her backstory and her narrative arc; I decided that she’d been a lover of goth music in high school, and I wrote a flashback where Marie drives to Denver with her friend and hangs out at Wax Trax Records! It was great to bring in that record store, which played (and still plays) an important role for so many Denver music lovers.

The second change involved trimming down and deleting about a tenth of the manuscript. My editor at Ecco asked me to cut 10,000 words, which was really painful. I removed a number of social issues — such as the juvenile justice system on reservations — and also struck numerous scenes and interludes. However, my editor was right, as I think the book is much tighter now. Some of that deleted material will be reused, I hope.

How complicated is it to write a crime novel? How did you maintain tension while feeding enough information to keep a reader enthralled?

Writing a crime novel means juggling a whole bunch of different components. Plot is almost always central, as a mystery or thriller will certainly fail if the reader isn’t intrigued by the events in the story. This usually requires that there’s a main plot and also a subplot, and the two should connect near the end of the novel.

But a crime writer also has to create compelling characters, craft realistic dialogue, and develop an interesting setting for the book. I faced the challenge of writing about the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, which I knew most potential readers had never visited. And finally, I included some legal and political background material that was necessary in order to show how the federal government is failing Native peoples on reservations in the area of criminal justice. I had to use a delicate touch with this information, as I didn’t want the book to read like an academic textbook. Overall, crime-fiction fans have enthusiastically endorsed the novel, and I’m delighted that literary-fiction readers have also embraced it.

Winter Counts is a thriller, but it's also about marginalized voices and communities. How does the responsibility to the latter affect the writing process? Does it? Can it?

Yes, I felt a huge responsibility to the Lakota community in my writing. I made the choice to write about the Rosebud Reservation accurately but positively. In other words, I decided to write about the problems that exist on the rez — and they are substantial — but to ultimately depict the beauty and joy of the place. The book is ultimately a celebration of Native culture and tradition, but it could easily have devolved into something less positive. I know that other Native writers feel the same weight. I’m friends with most of the other authors that are deemed to be part of the new Native American Literary Renaissance — Tommy Orange, Brandon Hobson, Kelli Jo Ford, Stephen Graham Jones and others — and we talk about this. It’s like walking on a tightrope: creating a manuscript that reflects your own vision, but also being aware of the duty to help, not hurt, the Indigenous community with your work.

How do you find the literary market is doing overall in terms of underrepresentation? There's always progress to point to, but the cultural and economic shift as a whole seems to be slow and plodding.

I’m no expert in industry trends, but my sense is that some good things are beginning to happen in publishing. There are new publishing houses such as Agora/Polis, which specializes in crime fiction by diverse authors; Reycraft Books, which focuses on #OwnVoices children’s books; and the Native-focused children’s imprint Heartdrum/HarperCollins. But beyond these examples, I’m hearing that the major New York publishing houses are increasingly interested in — perhaps even clamoring for — multicultural and inclusive books. However, it’s an open question as to whether this is a permanent shift or just a trend sparked by current political events.

You yourself are Native American; can you talk a bit about that, and what from your own life you were able to bring to bear in this book?

Yes, I’m an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, but I always point out that I grew up in Denver and not on the reservation. My mother was raised on the Rosebud Reservation, and I did spend a lot of time there as a kid, usually during summers. But being from the city, I never completely felt like I fit in there, and this sense of being something of an outsider is one of the central themes of the novel. Now I love to visit the reservation, and I go there regularly to see family and take part in spiritual ceremonies. But I’ve found that the theme of living in two different worlds is one that resonates with many readers, regardless of their background.

Speaking of your cultural identity, you are only the second Native American author in history to be nominated for the prestigious Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America. What do you think that says about the Edgars or mystery lit in general?

I was overwhelmed to learn that I’d been shortlisted for the Edgar Award. It’s a tremendous honor to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Native writer Martin Cruz Smith, who was nominated several times in the 1970s. The virtual ceremony was held on April 29, and I did not win the award, but I’m still stunned that my novel was shortlisted. I was also surprised to be nominated for the Hammett Prize, which operates differently than most other literary awards. They don’t separate fiction from nonfiction, but instead nominate the five books that demonstrate “literary excellence in crime writing,” as their website states. Interestingly, they often nominate authors that aren’t traditionally thought of as crime writers, such as Cormac McCarthy, Michael Chabon and Margaret Atwood.

I’m genuinely astounded and grateful that the novel has been recognized by all of these literary organizations. I hope the success of Winter Counts shows that the crime-fiction world — as well as the literary community as a whole — is becoming more open to different voices and perspectives. My friend S.A. Cosby’s fantastic heist novel, Blacktop Wasteland, also received a great deal of attention this year, as did many other novels by writers of color. This is good news for everyone who loves books.

How do you think Colorado is doing in terms of Indigenous social justice? Are you involved in literary and community outreach?

Well, Colorado is certainly doing better than South Dakota, which is plagued with terrible injustices against Indigenous citizens. Overall, I’ve found the Colorado Native community to be reasonably unified, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time on community development efforts. I served on the board of directors of the Denver Indian Family Resource Center for a number of years, and I’m the director of the Native American Studies program at Metropolitan State University of Denver, where I assist Indigenous students, most of whom are first-generation.

On the literary front, I’m active in a number of areas — most of which I keep quiet, in the Native tradition. But I can mention that I was a mentor for emerging Indigenous writers for AWP, the national writing association, and I also assist with getting books to Native families on the reservations. I shipped a large number of free copies of my children’s book, Spotted Tail, to every elementary school on all of the Lakota reservations. I also teach creative writing here in Colorado and make it my mission to help emerging writers. There are some other exciting projects in the works that I’ll be able to announce soon, including a new literary journal specializing in Indigenous fiction and nonfiction.

What's your next book? Have you started working on it yet, or are you still caught up in the well-deserved hubbub?

I’m delighted to report that I’m writing the sequel to Winter Counts, which is tentatively titled Wounded Horse; it will also be published by Ecco/HarperCollins. I’ve also written two short stories featuring the character Virgil Wounded Horse; these will appear this year in the Midnight Hour collection forthcoming from Crooked Lane Books, and the Bouchercon crime conference anthology, This Time for Sure. I’m also thrilled to note that I wrote a short story for the forthcoming Denver Noir collection from Akashic Books. That story is set in what’s now called Original Aurora, where I grew up. I spent the first ten years of my life in the Elyria/Swansea neighborhood before moving to Aurora and attending Aurora Central High School. So it was a pleasure to set the story on East Colfax, where I spent much of my youth. It features a new character, down-on-his-luck Native lawyer Griff Germaine, and mentions many Aurora landmarks, such as the (now sadly defunct) Zephyr Lounge and the Guadalajara Mexican Buffet, my favorite restaurant on the east side. After grappling with a novel for the last several years, it was a true pleasure to write some short stories again.

Winter Counts is available — and recommended — at fine booksellers everywhere. For more on David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s work, check out his website.
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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen