I’m so excited about this week’s interview with David Heska Wanbli Weiden. I got to read an advance copy of his book, WINTER COUNTS, last summer and immediately fell in love with this story about Virgil, a Native American vigilante fighting to keep heroin off his reservation. Below, David talks about the meaning behind his book’s title, the people his characters are based on, and his next big project. Enjoy!
David Heska Wanbli Weiden, an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota nation, is the author of the novel Winter Counts (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2020) and the children’s book Spotted Tail (Reycraft, 2019). He’s the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship, a Ragdale Foundation residency, the PEN America Writing for Justice Fellowship, and was a Tin House Scholar. He received his MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts, and is professor of Native American studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
Tell us about the title of your book. What is the story behind it?
Winter Counts is the traditional calendar system used by the Lakota people. Rather than using numbers, it used small pictographs to represent the most important events of the year. In my novel, my protagonist Virgil Wounded Horse remembers making these calendars as a child with his sister. And of course, the title also refers to the fact that winter is a very tough season for the Lakota people in South Dakota, due to the extreme temperatures. Most of the action in the book takes place in the winter.
Are your characters based on real people?
Yes. The central character in the novel is Virgil, who serves as a hired vigilante for those who can’t get justice from the American legal system. Because of an 1885 federal law known as the Major Crimes Act, Native nations can’t prosecute felony crimes that occur on their own lands. Instead, they must refer these cases to the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office. However, the feds are declining to prosecute a large percentage of these cases, which means that the offender is set free. So, the victims in these cases often go outside of the law and pay a hired enforcer to go after the person who committed the crime. In my book, Virgil charges one hundred dollars for each bone he breaks and each tooth he knocks out. Although Virgil is not based on any specific person, he’s based upon the actual enforcers who exist on reservations. And I should note that I’m hoping the book stimulates a discussion of the Major Crimes Act and whether the enforcement of felony crimes should be returned to Native nations.
Did anything change significantly in your book during the writing or editing process?
Very much so! Over the course of a dozen revisions, I expanded the character of Marie Short Bear, Virgil’s ex-girlfriend. She helps Virgil on his quest to stop heroin from being brought to the reservation, and she has her own issues to work through. She has to decide whether she should pursue her dream of becoming a physician, which would require that she leave the reservation. Overall, I’m very grateful to my early readers and writing partners, who advised me to deepen Marie’s character and make her more central to the story.
Tell us about your next big project.
I’m delighted to report that there will be a sequel to WINTER COUNTS, tentatively titled WOUNDED HORSE. I’m writing the book now, and while I can’t reveal the plot, I can promise that Ava the dog will return! In the book, Ava is a pampered Bichon Frise owned by Marie’s mother. In real life, Ava is based on my own dog, also a Bichon named Ava, and my family has made me promise that she’ll return in the new book. I’m happy to comply!
Tell us about some of the authors who inspire you.
Perhaps the greatest Native American writer was James Welch, whose best-known book was Winter in the Blood. That novel, with its searing portrayal of life on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, changed my life, as it showed me the possibilities for indigenous literature. Other writers who have inspired me are Louise Erdrich (who generously provided a blurb for Winter Counts!), Adrian C. Louis, M. Scott Momaday, and Leslie Marmon Silko. I’m so grateful to them for their stories and for showing the way for other Native writers.
WHAT THE REVIEWERS ARE SAYING
“Winter Counts is a marvel. It’s a thriller with a beating heart and jagged teeth. This book is a brilliant meditation on power and violence, and a testament to just how much a crime novel can achieve. Weiden is a powerful new voice. I couldn’t put it down.”
— Tommy Orange, author of There There
“Winter Counts is both a propulsive crime novel and a wonderfully informative book. David Heska Wanbli Weiden has written the first of what I hope is a series of books about life on Rosebud Reservation. Virgil Wounded Horse, his nephew Nathan, and Marie Short Bear are more than characters; they brim with intrigue and authentic life.”
— Louise Erdrich, author of The Night Watchman
“Weiden’s debut is a gritty, complex, and dynamic thriller… It’s an absolutely riveting page-turner, compelling not only for the mystery at its core, but also for its piercing criticism of US (mis)treatment of Native populations.”
“You’ll love the tough-guy hero who refuses to back down to anyone.”
“A great mystery with excellent characters–everything you want in a crime novel.”
— Book Riot
“[A] revelatory debut crime novel propelled by vital and affecting Native American characters . . . Suspenseful, gritty, gruffly endearing, and resonant.”
“I’ve been waiting most of my life for this book without realizing it. Winter Counts is a knowing, authentic, closely observed novel about modern-day Lakotas that rings absolutely true, warts and all. The sense of place is breathtaking and raw. It’s a hell of a debut.”
— C.J. Box, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Long Range
“One part gritty procedural, one part hard-edged literature, Winter Counts is more than a novel—it’s a testament in napalm you won’t be able to put down because it burns and holds fast.”
— Craig Johnson, author of the Walt Longmire Mysteries
“The full-throttle, can’t-put-it-downness of this novel is a fact. Winter Counts is a hell of a gripping debut, perfectly plotted; David Heska Wanbli Weiden is a major new voice in crime fiction, indigenous fiction, and American literature.”
— Benjamin Percy, author of Suicide Woods and Red Moon
“David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s Winter Counts marks the rise of a powerful new Native American voice in fiction, one that possesses an unnameable quality. With brilliant and precise prose, Weiden has created a deeply moving, heartfelt crime novel through Virgil Wounded Horse and his experiences of Native life. An astonishing debut novel.”
— Brandon Hobson, National Book Award Finalist and author of Where the Dead Sit Talking
“Winter Counts is a gripping, richly textured thriller and an urgent dispatch from Indian Country. Weiden writes with impressive authority and insight in this entirely original, enlightening, cliché-destroying novel.”
— James A. McLaughlin, Edgar Award-winning author of Bearskin
“A stone-cold thriller with a soul and a politics—compelling and complex. A gripping crime story perfectly married to bigger questions about race and place and American violence.”
— David Treuer, author of The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee
“Weiden announces himself as a formidable new voice in crime fiction. The images haunt, the action crackles, and Virgil Wounded Horse makes a lasting impression. Winter Counts is a heartfelt page-turner with compelling characters, keen cultural insight, and a climax unlike any I’ve read before.”
— Steph Cha, author of Your House Will Pay
“Winter Counts drops the hammer on page one and never lets up, until you’re not sure if that’s the drums in the story or your heart in your chest pounding.”
— Stephen Graham Jones, author of The Only Good Indians and Mongrels
“Winter Counts is a terrific debut—tight and tense, hard-eyed and big-hearted. David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s main character, Virgil Wounded Horse, is as compelling, complex, and sharply observed as the world he inhabits.”
— Lou Berney, Edgar Award-winning author of November Road and The Long and Faraway Gone