Five Questions with Author David Heska Wanbli Weiden
His debut, “Winter Counts,” is one of my favorites of the past few years
After speaking with David Heska Wanbli Weiden, I’ve concluded he’s the only person on the planet who could have written Winter Counts, a brilliant thriller set on a Native American reservation featuring an amateur sleuth, Virgil Wounded Horse, who doubles as a hired enforcer.
Weiden draws on his experience as an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation in South Dakota, his Ph.D. in Native American studies, creative writing talent and law degree to write a novel that combines his love of in crime fiction with his academic interest in criminal justice issues on reservations.
It’s a brilliant book — perfect for fans of mysteries and thrillers or anyone looking to learn more about life on Native American reservations. I’m eagerly awaiting sequels that let me spend more time with Virgil. If you’re playing bingo, Winter Counts is a great option for the debut or mystery/thriller boxes.
David and I chatted last week about his writing process, Virgil Wounded Horse, and what we can expect in future installments of his mystery series. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Virgil Wounded Horse is a unique sleuth. How did you go about developing his character?
Virgil is a vigilante or hired enforcer because these people really exist on many reservations. We don’t know how many vigilantes there are because there’s never been a study, and they don’t advertise on the web. You can’t book an appointment for someone to beat up a child molester from 3-4 PM on Friday. These hired enforcers exist shrouded in mystery, which is obviously a wonderfully fertile ground for drama.
I first wrote about Virgil in the short story, also called Winter Counts, back in 2011 in my graduate studies in creative writing. But in the short story, Virgil Wounded Horse dies because I wanted it to be a true crime noir story where the hero comes to a bad end. When I wrote the novel, I took it out of noir and moved it into thriller territory because I wanted Virgil to live. I loved him so much as a character I didn’t want him to die.
What was the process of transforming a short story into an entire novel like?
Virgil’s character really just stuck with me, and I felt like I hadn’t explored the character enough. In around 2017, I considered giving up creative writing because I hadn’t had any success beyond publishing a handful of short stories in fairly obscure journals. I had a big contract to write a textbook in the field of Native American studies, and before I did it, I thought, ‘I need to see if I can write a novel.’ So, I took this short story and had to rethink it. I added in multiple plot lines and more backstory. I brought in the character Marie Short Bear. It was a huge process to expand it.
A lot of people outside my immediate family don’t know this, but if this book hadn’t been sold to a publishing house, I was going to give up creative writing and focus on my work as a professor. I’m thrilled the book has done well, and people seem to love it, so I’m still teaching, but the textbook project is on hold.
How did you approach writing a book that’s both a tightly plotted thriller and an exploration of the intersection of tribal and federal laws?
It was a balancing act because I did not want the book to read like a dry textbook. After all, that would kill off a reader’s interest. In my role as a professor, I write plenty of articles that nobody reads, and I’ve had enough of those in my life. So, I wanted to slip in the historical and legal background in such a way that I wouldn’t turn off readers. I was constantly going back and rewriting.
I took a couple of issues out of Winter Counts because I felt I had enough. For instance, Native American spirituality was a criminal offense until 1978. As recently as 1975, people were thrown in prison for conducting a sweat lodge. And I didn’t have room for that in this book, but I can tell you it will play a fairly large role in the next book.
You mentioned the second book in the Virgil Wounded Knee series. Can you preview what you’re working on for us?
I have some short stories coming out that involve Virgil Wounded Knee. One is called “Skin;” in it, Virgil and his buddy Tommy are hired by the attorney in Winter Counts, Charlie, to break into a seminary in South Dakota and steal a book.
I’m going to give a bit of a spoiler here: Virgil says to the lawyer, “Look. I’ll beat people up, but I’m not a thief,” and asks what’s so special about the book. Charlie says the cover is made from the skin of a murdered Native person — “that’s why I want you to steal it.”
It’s based on a real story here in Denver, Colorado, where the Iliff School of Theology had a book published 200 years ago that was bound in the skin of a Native man. They just had it displayed prominently until there was an outrage, and they removed it. The story appears in a collection called Midnight Hour, coming out in November.
And then, I have another story with Virgil that will be included in the Bouchercon anthology. And finally, I’ve got two more stories not including Virgil coming out. One will be in a volume called Denver Noir and the second in an international short story collection from HarperCollins that hasn’t been named yet. It’s got excellent stuff from Walter Mosley, my buddy S.A Cosby, Sheena Kamal, a lot of good folks.
But I’m putting everything aside because my publisher really wants the next Virgil book, and so that is job one right now.
And, before you leave, any books you want to recommend?
If you’re a crime fan, I’m sure you already know about Razorblade Tears by S.A. Crosby and it’s coming out on July 6th. Another Kind of Eden by James Lee Burke looks amazing.
I blurbed Angels in the Wind by Manuel Ramos. He’s a Latinx writer here in Denver, Colorado. It’s a great novel set in Colorado, a sort of traditional PI story, but just so well done.
I can’t leave without mentioning When These Mountains Burned by David Joy. It’s superb. I taught in a MFA program and my students loved it. It should get more play among crime readers. The last few pages of this book are as good as the ending of The Great Gatsby. It just knocked my socks off.
Thanks again to David to speaking with me. I could have talked all day. You can follow David on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and order his book here (the paperback comes out next week!).
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Cannot wait to get through what’s on my kindle to then start Winter Counts. David’s recs all sound intriguing, too. And today someone asked me for a narrative nonfiction rec and I was able to proudly offer The Feather Thief.
I had no idea Winter Counts was the first in a series -- now I definitely have to go back to it!