The Thrill of Justice in “Winter Counts”

Our interview with David Heska Wanbli Weiden about his new novel, "Winter Counts."

Winter Counts opens on Virgil Wounded Horse in a parked car outside a bar biding his time before he beats the hell out of local predatory rapist. Virgil is Rosebud Reservation’s local enforcer, the only one willing to put his body on the line to make sure his community is protected and sees justice, but if your sense is you know this type — the bruised and brooding vigilante — David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s novel will prove you wrong. Weiden’s protagonist is complicated by patient plotting and character development; that is to say, Virgil is not a convenient symbol of moral good. When Virgil’s nephew accidentally gets mixed up with an out-of-town drug cartel, his mission becomes not a simple matter of vengeance, but rather a tortuous journey that exposes the cruel and intentional failures of the federal criminal justice system.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden is the author of Winter Counts. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts. He’s an alumnus of VONA, a Tin House Scholar, a MacDowell Colony Fellow, a Ragdale Foundation resident, and received the PEN/America Writing for Justice Fellowship. He’s published in Shenandoah, Yellow Medicine Review, Transmotion, Criminal Class Review, Tribal College Journal, and other magazines.

Aram Mrjoian

Recently on Twitter, National Book Foundation Executive Director, Lisa Lucas, asked: “Are people writing and buying a different kind of crime novel yet?” When I saw that tweet, Winter Counts was one of the first books that came to mind. Your protagonist, Virgil Wounded Horse, is a vigilante enforcer in part because he recognizes the systemic failures of law enforcement, both on and off the Rosebud Indian Reservation. This becomes important both in regard to plot and theme throughout the novel. Can you talk a little bit about how you wanted to approach the lack of criminal justice on reservations in this book? Were you thinking about this theme in relation to genre conventions or challenging genre expectations of a crime thriller?

David Heska Wanbli Weiden

First of all, thank you for the opportunity to speak with you and for the great questions. I definitely started writing the novel with the goal of exploring the failure of the federal government in regard to keeping Native American citizens safe on reservations. The federal Major Crimes Act has been a disaster for indigenous peoples, both in its operation as well as its negation of Native sovereignty. A word of explanation, for those who haven’t read the book: the law mandates that only federal authorities — the FBI, federal prosecutors — have the right to prosecute serious felony criminal cases on Indian reservations. But, the feds are declining to prosecute about a third of these cases, even after the offender has been arrested by tribal police. So, the accused criminal is released and is free to re-offend.

This has contributed to a relatively high crime rate on some reservations and has also led to the creation of a class of private vigilantes. These are hired enforcers who will beat up the person who harmed a member of your family but was then set free. I’m troubled by the implications of vigilantism, but there are few avenues of recourse for Native families, and I sympathize with their desire for justice. I absolutely wanted to bring attention to this terrible situation in the book, and the protagonist in the book is one of these enforcers, Virgil Wounded Horse.

But I also wanted to write a different type of crime novel. I wanted to explore the dynamics of a professional vigilante: does he grapple with the morality of his job? How does he handle family relations? And, what is the true meaning of justice in a society like an Indian reservation, where there are so few resources and there’s a terrible history of genocidal policies by the federal government? In other words, I wanted to write a book that was a page-turner, but also one that challenged the standard conventions of crime fiction by examining these larger issues. To be clear, I think the best crime literature has always done that: works by Attica Locke, Steph Cha, James Ellroy, and many others are wonderful examples.

Aram Mrjoian

Perhaps a follow-up, one thing I really love about Winter Counts is that the novel balances the fast pacing and plot-driven energy of a crime novel with literary prose and elegant character development. That is to say, Virgil feels more fully developed to me than say the traditional noir, hard-boiled detective trying to solve the puzzle. There’s more to him than the gumshoe archetype. How did you go about mapping this novel out? What were the particular difficulties of constructing something that both takes techniques from the thriller genre and strays away from them? Did this change the way you thought about Virgil’s character?

David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Well, thank you for the kind thoughts on Virgil’s character. I thought a lot about his characterization and also about the narrative structure of the book. I knew that I had to follow many of the conventions of the thriller genre in order to create a highly readable novel. For example, I’d originally planned that Virgil would be killed at the end of the book, but that would have taken the novel into noir territory, and wasn’t really consistent with the dramatic logic of the book. And, truth be told, I also loved his character so much that I wanted the chance to keep writing in his voice. I also followed a fairly standard three-act structure for the plot, and this helped me with the pacing of the book.

But I certainly deviated from genre conventions in that I spent a fair amount of space in the book for the development of Virgil’s character and his relationships with his ex-girlfriend, Marie, and his nephew, Nathan. I wanted to show him struggling to raise a child — and I was certainly inspired by my own life, as I have two teenage sons — and trying to rebuild a life with Marie as the book progresses. I also worked very hard on the prose, and thank you for noticing that. My training was partly in literary fiction, and I love the lyricism and playfulness in the prose of, say, Nabokov, who’s always been one of my heroes. As a nod to Nabokov, I built in some hidden allusions and references in the text, just as he loved to do. Finally, there’s a little magical realism in there, which some didn’t care for, but I felt was important to keep, so as to challenge standard crime-genre norms.

Aram Mrjoian

Virgil’s investigation requires a significant amount of driving through a part of the country that often gets branded as rural or “flyover” territory. He has to bounce around from town to town in South Dakota, Nebraska, and Colorado. Can you talk a little bit about writing about that part of the country and your thoughts on setting?

David Heska Wanbli Weiden

I tried really hard to create an accurate picture of my sense of the Rosebud Reservation. By that, I mean I tried to use setting as a means to express the theme of the novel. I didn’t just describe streets and buildings: I had Virgil internally comment on those places and structures on the rez — what they meant to him, his family, and the Lakota people. I’ve only recently learned the term “active setting,” and that’s exactly what I was going for. I wanted readers to truly feel the atmosphere of the reservation, and what that place means to the people there.

For the Denver chapters, I added an element of urban social commentary. As a life-long Denver resident, I’ve seen the city massively change over the years, and I wanted to comment on those changes, so long as they were relevant to the story. I used a lot of actual Denver businesses in those chapters, some of which have already closed down in the last year due to gentrification. I should also note that I brought in some Denver lore that many in the area will notice, such as the tale of Don Becker, a local comedian who had a vision one night that he had to put his arm on a train track (yes, it was cut off, sad to say), in order to save society. I wanted to write about Father Phony but had to cut him in the revisions. He was a Denver institution — a con man who dressed up like a Catholic priest and scammed tourists out of pocket change. Yes, he was a fraud, but we kind of loved him. He was a symbol of the old Denver, now lost to upscale cannabis shops and high-end distilleries.

Aram Mrjoian

Early in the novel, Virgil reflects, “We were told in movies and books that Indians had a sacred relationship with the land, that we worshipped and nurtured it. But staring at Nathan, I didn’t feel any mystical bond with the rez.” Throughout Virgil’s journey, he goes through periods of feeling both close to and distant from his heritage. He is constantly critiquing the racist stereotypes that are everywhere inside and outside of his community. He bristles at traditions, but also feels like he can never (at least mentally or emotionally) leave the rez. Meanwhile, you have a character like Lack Strongbow, a celebrity chef trying to launch an “indigi-cultural food movement.” Winter Counts is described as “a meditation on Native identity,” would you mind expanding on how you were thinking about these different representations?

David Heska Wanbli Weiden

When I started writing the novel, I thought it was only going to be about the broken criminal justice system on the reservation. But as I revised the book, I realized that it’s actually about identity. Virgil is an iyeska — a Lakota slur for half-breed — and he never feels that he fits in anywhere, a characteristic that I think many of us feel. So, the novel is really about his internal journey to come to terms with being Lakota, and handling all of the baggage that entails. That is, how does a Native person balance indigenous culture with the trappings of modern American society? Once again, these issues were informed by my own ongoing struggle to raise my kids with Lakota values while living in a big American city. As part of that theme, I brought in a number of other issues:  the inadequate health care system on most reservations, and the struggle to eat healthy and sustainable food, which is not easy on most reservations. Chef Strongbow was a lot of fun to write. He’s a huckster in some ways but turns out to be a good guy in the end. Anyway, by the end of the book, Virgil has come to an equilibrium of sorts about his identity, but he’ll continue to struggle with these issues in the next book, Wounded Horse, which I’m writing right now.

Aram Mrjoian

I noticed in the acknowledgments you mention that the Yellow Medicine Review published “the short story that provided the blueprint for this book.” I’m curious about the process of expanding a short story into a novel. What did that process look like?

David Heska Wanbli Weiden

I’d written the short story, also titled “Winter Counts,” and was happy with it. But, the voice of Virgil kept whispering to me for about three years. Finally, I decided it was time to find out if I had the chops to write a novel, so I resurrected Virgil (who’d died in the short story) and began the process of expanding the narrative to a longer form. I’m an outliner, so I spent about six months tinkering with potential storylines and plot twists. As I wrote, the plot changed, of course, and I continued to streamline and revise the manuscript. I think I had eighteen revisions in total. I’m so grateful to Ecco/HarperCollins, who believed in the book and gave me this chance.

Aram Mrjoian

I remember my advanced copy of Winter Counts landing in my campus mailbox back in spring. At the time, I still imagined I’d be attending AWP, teaching in person, and going about business as usual. Let me know if this is a bogus question, but in the past few months, has the way you’re thinking about this book going out into the world changed in the wake of the pandemic?

David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Oh, absolutely. I’d long presumed that, if I ever got a novel published, I’d get to do some sort of tour and engage with folks personally and speak about the issues in the book. This is such a new world, politically and culturally, and I think we’re still trying to figure out how things will work in publishing now. Of course, I’m doing a fair number of virtual events, but what’s gone — in many states — is the physical shopping environment, where a bookseller can hand-sell and recommend a book that he or she loves, or a customer can just stumble onto a novel with an interesting cover or a blurb from an author they trust. My sense is that interviews —l ike this one! — will play a larger role in exposing readers to new writers. I hope readers will give Winter Counts a chance, as well as works from other debut authors who are releasing their books now.

Winter Counts
By David Heska Wanbli Weiden
Ecco Press
Published August 25, 2020

Aram Mrjoian is a writer, editor, instructor, and PhD candidate at Florida State University. He is an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books, the Southern Review of Books, and the Southeast Review, as well as the managing editor at TriQuarterly. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Millions, The Rumpus, Boulevard, Cream City Review, Gulf Coast online, Longreads, Joyland, and many other publications. He earned his MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University. Find his work at

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