Thursday, April 29, 2021

Native leaders and John Cusack movies: an interview with David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Kia ora and haere mai, welcome to the latest instalment of our 9mm interview series, which is running weekly in 2021. This author interview series has now been running for over a decade, on and off, and today marks the 229th overall edition. 

Thanks for reading over the years. I've had tonnes of fun chatting to some amazing writers and bringing their thoughts and stories to you. 

My plan is to to publish 40-50 new author interviews in the 9mm series this year. You can check out the full list of of past interviewees here. Some amazing writers.

If you've got a favourite crime writer who hasn't yet been featured, let me know in the comments or by sending me a message, and I'll look to make that happen for you. Even as things with this blog may evolve moving forward, I'll continue to interview crime writers and review crime novels.

Today I'm very pleased to welcome Sicangu Lakota storyteller David Heska Wanbli Weiden to Crime Watch. David is the author of one of my absolute favourite reads of the past couple of years, WINTER COUNTS. An outstanding debut thriller set on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, it was recommended to me by SA Cosby (author of BLACKTOP WASTELAND), and I absolutely loved it. 

I'm not the only one - WINTER COUNTS has been nominated for the 2021 Edgar Award for Best First Novel, the Lefty Award for Best Debut Mystery, Reading the West Award for Best Debut Fiction, and appeared on numerous 'Best of the Year' lists from major magazines, websites, and other publications. 

The book has been published in French earlier this year (as JUSTICE INDIENNE), and will also be translated into German and Turkish. Funnily enough, it's not the most widely available for UK & Commonwealth readers just yet, being out in US hardcover at the moment. (Edit: But in some great news since our interview, WINTER COUNTS has been picked up for UK & Commonwealth publication, and will be out in print in those countries later this year. Well worth a pre-order.)

And it's well worth nabbing a copy - following Shawn's fervent recommendation, I ordered a hardcover copy from the United States, and it was well worth it. Fantastic read. As I said for the current issue of Mystery Scene, which highlighted our favourite reads of 2020, WINTER COUNTS was: 

"My favourite debut of 2020; an exceptional first novel ... On the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota those who can’t find justice from the legal system or tribal council call on Virgil Wounded Horse, the local enforcer. When heroin threatens the reservation, and his nephew, Virgil undertakes a dangerous investigation. Character-centric crime fiction that packs a punch in a setting that pulses through its lyrical prose."   

David is a Professor of Native American Studies and Political Science at Metropolitan State University of Denver, and lives in Colorado with his two sons. He also teaches creative writing at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, the MFA program in Writing and Publishing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and the low-residency MFA program at Western Colorado University.

For those of us who aren't his students, we'll be hoping he finds the time in among all of that for another Virgil Wounded Horse tale sometime very soon. But for now, David Heska Wanbli Weiden becomes the latest crime writer to stare down the barrel of 9mm.


1. Who is your favorite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
Tough to pick a favorite! As a kid, I devoured every one of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. Today, I love Easy Rawlins, Walt Longmire, and Dave Robicheaux. And of course, I’m in awe of what Tana French accomplished with the Dublin Murder Squad series. All of these authors combine unforgettable characters with an amazing sense of place, and I’m so grateful to have been able to study their books as I was learning how to write my own fiction. 

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
Excluding comic books, which I loved as a little kid, the first book I really loved was The Works of Edgar Allan Poe. This was an old volume, owned by my parents, which contained the poems, short stories, and the novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. I ignored most of the collections but was completely fascinated by “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Purloined Letter.” I don’t know much I understood of these stories, but Poe’s work clearly made a life-long impression on me. 

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
Before the publication of WINTER COUNTS in 2020, I’d published a handful of short stories, including the story in which Virgil Wounded Horse first appeared, back in 2014 in the journal Yellow Medicine Review. I’d also published a children’s book, SPOTTED TAIL, in 2019. That book is a biography of the life of the great Sicangu Lakota leader, Chief Spotted Tail. That volume won the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America, but, more importantly, many Native families have informed me how much their children love it. I’m really proud of SPOTTED TAIL and am really grateful to Reycraft Books for the wonderful job they did with it. 

4. Outside of writing and writing-related activities (book events, publicity), what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
Music—live and recorded—is one of the passions of my life. Before the pandemic hit, I’d attend a fair number of concerts and I really miss them now. I listen to primarily alternative music, such as PJ Harvey, Radiohead, and the like, although I also love standard jazz--Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, etc. I confess that I may be the last person to still purchase CDs, as I’ve never really figured out how to use digital music services. This last fact greatly amuses my two teenage sons. I’m also a sports fan—American football, basketball, and hockey—and have long rooted for my hometown team, the Denver Broncos. Interestingly, my oldest son now enjoys sports, and I’ve promised to take him to a game as soon as we’re again allowed to attend these events. 

5. What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
Anyone visiting Denver, Colorado should certainly visit Casa Bonita, which is a deeply strange restaurant/theme park. It’s a massive space with indoor cliff divers, puppet and magic shows, and a cave that kids can explore. I love it so much that I put it in WINTER COUNTS! On their trip to Denver, Virgil and Marie visit the place and rekindle their relationship there. Although the food is not spectacular, the experience is great, and it’s one of the last remaining Denver landmarks that give the city its unique character. 

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Well, a movie of my life would be pretty boring! I spend most of my time with my family and my work. But I suppose I’ve always liked the actor John Cusack. He’s appeared in some of my favorite films: Being John Malkovich, Grosse Point Blank, The Ice Harvest, Say Anything. . . , and many others. His roles tend to be offbeat and unconventional, and that appeals to me. 

7. Of your writings, which is your favorite or a bit special to you for some particular reason, and why?
Without a doubt, my novel WINTER COUNTS is the most special thing I’ve written as well as my favorite. I truly poured everything I had into the book: Native life, being a parent, my thoughts on how the city of Denver is changing, and much more. I awoke at 4:00 am every day for 18 months to write the book and then revised it for another six. I can honestly say that I’m completely happy with how it turned out, and that the book accurately reflects what I had envisioned when I first came up with the idea. That’s rare for me, as I sometimes feel that I may not have completely realized my concept after I’ve finished a manuscript. But with WINTER COUNTS, I was able to write the book I’d been dreaming of. 

8. What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
Well, I was both elated and overwhelmed when I was informed that Ecco Books was going to publish WINTER COUNTS. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if a crime novel set on a Native American reservation would be of interest to most people, and I’m delighted that it’s resonated so strongly with both critics and readers. And of course, I’m tremendously honored that the novel has been nominated for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by the Mystery Writers of America. To be recognized by fellow writers and critics is certainly a dream come true. As for celebrations, after being nominated for the Edgar Award, I took my family to an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant, and my two sons certainly took advantage of the all-you-can-eat concept!

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
Because my fiction debut occurred right in the middle of the pandemic, all of my events were virtual. However, that didn’t stop one bizarre individual from crashing a virtual reading I was taking part in with the wonderful Vanessa Lillie at a bookstore in Oklahoma. The man—who seemed to be about 80 years old--appeared on our screens, completely naked, and, uh, pleasuring himself. Thankfully, the organizers cut him off immediately, but it took all of us a while to stop laughing. 

Thank you David. We appreciate you chatting to Crime Watch. 

You can find out more about David and his writing here, and follow him on Twitter. 

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