WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, David. I think that I have always been fascinated with other cultures, other people (not necessarily of different races, but really anyone who isn’t like me), and I’m so happy that especially in the crime community we are beginning to spread out and people who aren’t white men are able to have a voice. Your voice is especially strong, riveting—I can’t get over your book. It’s an astounding tour de force that tackles so many issues so elegantly while also keeping us glued to the page, wondering what will happen to Virgil and the people around him. Can you tell me a little bit about your background with writing and how you got started as an author?
David Heska Wanbli Weiden: Well, I’m just so deeply honored by your words and your praise for Winter Counts. I’m thrilled that you liked Virgil and Marie’s story! As for my start in creative writing, I’ve always been obsessed by literature, even as a little kid. I grew up in a pretty impoverished family in a rough neighborhood in Denver, and we didn’t even have a library anywhere near us. But, we had a Bookmobile that came to my elementary school every Friday afternoon. I’d check out around eight or nine books, and tear through all of them that week before returning to get more the following Friday. I knew, even then, that I wanted to be a writer. But I didn’t have the framework or resources to understand how to do that, as neither of my parents graduated from college. Watching my family get torn apart due to a lack of money, I made the career choices that so many poor kids make—be cautious, get educated in a field that pays decently, don’t take risks. For me, that meant getting trained as a lawyer and then moving to teaching at a college. But, about ten years ago, I decided to go ahead and follow my dream, even if it was fifteen years too late. I enrolled in the MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, studied there for three semesters, and later transferred to the brand-new MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico. These schools gave me the tools that I needed to learn my craft, and I was fortunate to sign with a literary agent—the amazing Michelle Brower—during my last semester of my MFA program. Michelle was wonderful in helping me revise and shape Winter Counts and then finding the perfect home for it with Ecco/HarperCollins.
MT: What were the novels you read that were your truly formative novels? What novels do you feel shaped you and your writing and your writing style? What novels and novelists (and really all writers) do you read today and love and recommend to our readers?
DHWW: As a kid, I loved genre fiction immensely. Science fiction, crime, horror—anything that told a compelling story and kept me glued to the page. In college, I drifted away from genre work and began reading literary fiction exclusively: John Updike, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Don DeLillo. I always loved Louise Erdrich’s books and have reread some of them five times or more (The Round House!) I should also note that I recently had the privilege to meet her and she’s one of the nicest and kindest people around, and I’m tremendously honored that she provided a blurb for Winter Counts. Anyway, the return to genre fiction for me came when I read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. That book absolutely blew me away, and I realized that a writer could tell an amazing story while developing complex characters and exploring challenging themes. Today, we’re blessed with so many talented writers who combine a page-turning story with terrific prose, imagery, and characters. A few writers I’d recommend are Benjamin Percy, Attica Locke, Craig Johnson, C.J. Box, Lou Berney, Steph Cha, Brandon Hobson, Stephen Graham Jones, James A. McLaughlin, and T.C. Boyle. I’m lucky in that I’ve been able to meet a good number of those authors, and I can tell you that they are not only terrific writers, but great people as well.
MT: Why did you decide to write Winter Counts? It’s such an important novel in so many ways, a book that is so entertaining, but in many ways timeless, and I have to wonder when you decided, Yes, it is necessary for me to write this book now. Not when you had the idea, although feel free to elaborate on that too, but when you decided the book was necessary.
DHWW: Winter Counts was originally a short story that I wrote way back in 2011. I published it in the magazine Yellow Medicine Review in 2014, but the character of Virgil stayed with me. To be honest, I was somewhat scared at the idea of writing a whole novel based on these characters, but the idea just grew larger and larger in my head until I decided that it was time to expand the characters and the themes. Part of my decision to finally sit down and write the novel was the increasing amount of drug abuse occurring on the Rosebud Reservation. There are many, many houses on the reservation that are abandoned because they’ve been used as meth houses. I hope this book can shed some light on the broken criminal justice system on many reservations today as well as the scourge of narcotic addiction that’s destroying so many lives in Indian country.
MT: Were there any parts of the novel particularly hard to write about? I know some authors get particularly attached to their protagonists—I’m guilty to that—and it’s hard for us to make them suffer and provide obstacles for them to overcome (although somedays, when we’re pissed off, we’re ready to throw all the obstacles their way). How do you feel about Virgil, and how did you develop him as such a tough character with an amazing voice?
DHWW: Thank you for those kind words! I love the character Virgil, and the hardest part for me to write was his backstory—his tragedies and missteps. But I knew this was necessary to depict, so that he could move forward with his character arc. As for his voice, I did what so many writers do—like an actor, I tried to channel his worldview, his mannerisms, and his style into a distinctive cadence and perspective, and I hope I succeeded.
MT: I normally save this question for last, but do you have a work-in-progress currently, and will we see more of Virgil and his world? I really need to know this.
DHWW: Yes, I’m happy to share that there will be a sequel to Winter Counts, also published by Ecco. I have the broad outline of the story but am filling in the gaps right now. Stay tuned! Also in the works is a collection of essays on Native American issues. Although fiction is my first love, I really enjoy creative nonfiction as well, and I’ve published a few essays, most recently a piece—“Carlisle Longings”--in the literary magazine Shenandoah, which is about my grandmother’s time at the infamous Carlisle Indian School. I’ve also written a children’s book, Spotted Tail, and hope that I can write another one of those as well.
MT: I won’t ask big questions about the country or world, but what do you hope readers take away from the novel outside of an incredibly immersive reading experience? Why would you recommend the book to people outside of being entertaining?
DHWW: This is such a great question. Outside of (hopefully) being a page-turner, my desire is that readers will take away some knowledge about the shameful political situation on many reservations, where the federal authorities are refusing to prosecute a huge number of criminal cases, resulting in violent offenders being released with no punishment at all. And beyond that, I hope that readers learn about the incredible resiliency and character of the Sicangu Lakota people. Our nation is not often depicted in fiction, and I hope I’ve done justice in my portrayal, showing the humor, generosity, and spirit of the Burnt Thigh people.
MT: I’m queer, and when I was younger I read that—I believe—it was Michael Cunningham who said he didn’t want to be called a “gay writer” or “queer writer.” Do you think there’s a danger in being grouped into a certain type of author, or a certain group of authors, or do you think it’s effective and positive to be categorized this way? In my mind, there might be pros and cons.
DHWW: This is an interesting question, and I’m not sure that I completely fit in any one group. I know that I’m viewed as a Native writer by some, but I also get tagged as a crime writer and a children’s book author by others. And there are some folks who only know my academic writing and aren’t even aware that I write fiction. I don’t really mind any of these labels, as I use my experiences as an American Indian, lawyer, professor, and father to inform all of my work. I suppose the danger is that bookstores may not know where to shelve Winter Counts, a literary thriller set on the Rosebud Reservation. Should it go in the Native American, crime, or literary sections? My suspicion is that most will put it in crime, which is completely fine with me. Those are my people!
MT: I remember at one point you talk about Sioux vs Lakota, and to me it seems like so much about culture, the needs of a group of people, and the ways we relate to others can be lost in translation (especially when we don’t want to participate in learning about others). Do you think, in the novel, any of Virgil’s troubles relate directly to this idea of being lost in translation, or hearing what we (white people) want to hear? Did you ever feel pressured to write a novel not for you, but a book that white people would want to hear, like when Marie says “Sioux” instead of “Lakota”?
DHWW: Wow! I’m so thrilled you picked up on that. Virgil is an iyeska, which is a Lakota slur for half-breed. He exists in several different worlds but doesn’t always feel that he fits in anywhere. As a writer, I relate to this same dynamic, of course. I definitely struggled over how much context I should provide for non-Native readers, and whether our internal divisions and problems would be of interest to anyone who’s not Lakota. In the end, I decided that I would write as truthfully as I could about Native life while also being respectful and positive. I did make several decisions early on, such as the choice that my main character would not be an alcoholic, as I didn’t want to feed those stereotypes. In the novel, Virgil acknowledges past problems with liquor, but he doesn’t take a drink in the book.
MT: What or who do you feel is missing from the crime community, or literary community as a whole? What do you want to see written, and who do you feel needs to be heard more?
DHWW: I think it’s an amazing time for the crime fiction community. There are so many formerly marginalized voices that are now being heard. I’m a member of the group Crime Writers of Color, and it is filled with established and emerging writers who are telling stories in a new way and from new perspectives. And not just in crime, but there are wonderful new writers in various genres across the board, not to mention the explosion of talent in literary realism from new voices. I hope that this trend continues and becomes the new normal. As for what still needs to be heard, I’m hoping to read more crime fiction from emerging Native writers. There are nearly 600 Native nations in the United States, each with a different history and perspective, and I hope those unique stories get told.
MT: I ask this question a lot, but it’s often attributed to Toni Morrison, this quote about how you should write the novel you’ve always wanted to read but have never found. Do you feel you have written this novel, or do you feel it’s still to come?
DHWW: I’m a huge fan of character-driven crime fiction, and there haven’t been many of those written by Native authors or set on the Rosebud Reservation. So, I do feel that I wrote the book I set out to write, although it took me a while to get there. I’m happy with the way Winter Counts turned out, and I have a whole lot of people to thank for that. My agent Michelle Brower, my editors Zack Wagman and Helen Atsma, and all the folks who read early drafts, especially Ramona Ausubel, Ben Percy, Danya Kukafka, and my patient workshop colleagues at the Tin House Summer Workshop and the Voices of Our Nations conference. Of course, we’re always growing as writers, and I hope that I’ll be able to address some new issues and themes in my future work. For example, my young son Sasha was, sadly, present at a school shooting in May of 2019. He had to huddle in a closet and listen to gunfire just two classrooms away. Although he thankfully wasn’t injured, this was incredibly traumatic for my family, and I’m planning to write some nonfiction exploring this event.
MT: Was there ever a scene, a chapter, or an issue with the book that made you want to quit writing the book and move on to something else? What obstacles do you face as an author usually, whether it be creative, referring to the plot, an editing issue, or anything else?
DHWW: No, I never wanted to quit writing the book—it was a lot of fun! The toughest part of the entire process came near the end, when my editor at Ecco requested that I cut about 10,000 words from the manuscript. It was genuinely painful to lose entire scenes, but the book does read better now, so I’m grateful I was pushed in that way. And who knows, maybe I’ll be able to bring some of that material back. . .
MT: I’m really obsessed with your novel. I talk about it all the time, and I recommend it to everyone, and once I get more money, I’ll be preordering the book as gifts for holidays and birthdays for everyone. I want to thank you for letting me interview you. It’s such a privilege. Feel free to talk about any lingering thoughts, ideas, or anything else we didn’t cover but thank you so much again for the interview. I really am glad this book exists, and I’m glad you exist, and I can’t wait to read more from you.
DHWW: Thank you again for these great questions. I’m really appreciative that you read my words and that they resonated with you. We are lucky to have you in the crime fiction community!