What's in a Page: Inside the Tommy Orange and Louise Erdrich-approved own voices thriller Winter Counts
Get to know the name David Heska Wanbli Weiden. The author will release his debut, Winter Counts, on Aug. 25, has received high praise from none other than Tommy Orange and Louise Erdrich, and already has a sequel in the works. Weiden is an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation — the novel takes place on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota and follows a resident's quest for justice in the reservation's heroin epidemic. Here, the author indulges EW in reflecting on his writing process and Winter Count's journey to print.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
DAVID HESKA WANBLI WEIDEN: In second grade at Swansea Elementary School in Denver, Co., I wrote a long story inspired by the Peanuts cartoon strip, which was my favorite. Everyone in the class loved the tale, and soon the other students started writing their own stories! Although that piece of writing has long since vanished, I still remember how much I loved entertaining the other kids, even for just a moment.
What is the last book that made you cry?
The section where Gus dies in Lonesome Dove (Simon & Schuster, 1985) by Larry McMurtry brings me to tears every time I read it. That novel is my favorite — one that I’ve read many times, and which has a special meaning for me. Before he died, my father and I had become somewhat estranged, but we’d always bonded over talk of books. He called me one afternoon and asked for a recommendation, and I immediately mentioned Lonesome Dove. About a week later, he called me up, crying, and said he loved the book, and that he was sorry for losing touch with me. After that, we never lost contact again.
Which book is at the top of your current To-Read list?
The Night Watchman (Harper, 2020) by Louise Erdrich. I was fortunate enough to meet Louise at a conference right before the pandemic hit, and I found her to be a very warm and kind person. And of course, I was so honored that she read Winter Counts and provided a wonderful quote praising the novel. I’ve been saving The Night Watchman as a special treat for myself, and it will be the very next book I read!
Where do you write?
I have a lovely and sunny office in my home, which is where I do the bulk of my writing. However, I get cabin fever easily, so I frequent a rotating selection of local coffee shops where I can sip some java and ponder awkward sentences. My go-to in Denver is St. Mark’s Coffeehouse, which is a wonderful space in which to read and work. I’ve also had the good fortune to write at several artists’ residencies, including MacDowell and Ragdale. At MacDowell, I was in the cabin where James Baldwin worked on some of his novels. At first, I was too overwhelmed to do any real writing there, but then I decided to be inspired by Baldwin’s presence and I completed the last 75 pages of Winter Counts in just three weeks.
Which book made you a forever reader?
My parents owned a series of books issued by Black’s Readers Service Company: the collected works of authors such as Wilde, Chekhov, Ibsen, Hawthorne. The books were old, musty, and set in microscopic type. But as a child, I was drawn to The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, and I devoured all of the stories and tales in the book, reading them over and over. Little did I know that I was reading some of the earliest modern detective stories, especially “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Much later, I reread Poe’s detective stories featuring the character C. Auguste Dupin, and I found they were as good as I’d remembered.
What is a snack you couldn’t write without?
Well, I suspect nearly every writer survives on a constant stream of coffee — brewed, cold, and instant (in a pinch). But that’s not really a snack — it’s a necessity, right? So, I guess my go-to snack would be Cape Cod Kettle Chips, original style. However, when I was in New Hampshire in 2018, I discovered the Cape Cod Dark Russet version, and they are fantastic, with a sweet and buttery flavor. But, I’ve never been able to find them in Colorado. Hey, Cape Cod company, how about shipping some Dark Russets to those of us out here in the West?
If you could change one thing about any of your books what would it be?
In Winter Counts, I wish I’d written more scenes with the dog, Ava. Ava is a Bichon Frise owned by the character Ann Short Bear, but the dog only appears twice in the novel. I love the breed, and I own an actual Bichon named (not coincidentally) Ava. I promise that Ava will reappear in the sequel, Wounded Horse!
What is your favorite part of Winter Counts?
I had a lot of fun writing the ending chapters of Winter Counts, which are pretty intense. It was also enjoyable to write the chapters that take place in Denver, my hometown, as I was able to bring in landmarks from the city, such as the restaurant Casa Bonita. It’s a hybrid theme park/restaurant that’s even appeared on the cartoon South Park.
What was the hardest plot point or character to write?
Without a doubt, the chapters involving Nathan, who’s 14 and the nephew of my main character, Virgil. I don’t want to give too much away, but Nathan gets into serious trouble in the book, and I had to tap into my own experiences as a father of two teenage boys. I became very upset while writing those chapters, but I knew that I had to dig deep to portray the scenes truthfully.
Write a movie poster tag line for the book:
“When justice is denied on the reservation, he’ll take care of the bad guys. For a price.”
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