David Heska Wanbli Weiden is a Renaissance man.
Not only did he write Winter Counts, a book which won nearly every crime-writing award last year, David also holds an MFA degree, a law degree, and a Ph.D. As if that weren’t enough, Dr. Weiden is also a tenured professor of Native American Studies and Political Science at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Oh, yeah, he also teaches MFA classes on the side.
I was more than thrilled to talk shop with such an erudite author. I might’ve even been a little nervous. Turns out, David’s kindness far exceeds his education. Which makes complete sense once you hear his amazing story.
Eli Cranor: What’s your writerly origin story?
David Heska Wanbli Weiden: I grew up in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Denver, Colorado, called Swansea/Elyria. It’s financially impoverished, and located by a dog food factory, an arsenic and cadmium refinery, train tracks, and stockyards. It has the distinction of being the most polluted zip code in the entire United States. That’s where I grew up. But, I’d spend summers with my mom on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where she’s from. So, I grew up in two worlds—the city and the reservation. In Denver, we constantly struggled with our finances, and books became my escape from the difficulties we faced. Neither of my parents graduated from college, but they both loved reading. We didn’t have a library in our neighborhood, but we did have a bookmobile that would come to our elementary school every Friday afternoon. That started my love of genre fiction. I read everything I could get my hands on: mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, literary fiction, too. I had a vague sense that I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t take that seriously. When you grow up poor—bill collectors calling and all that—you want to have a steady paycheck and a stable career so you don’t have to live like your parents did.
EC: Writing definitely doesn’t provide the steadiest of paychecks.
DHWW: Exactly. That’s why I went to law school. I practiced law for a couple of years, all while reading voraciously and still having this hazy idea of wanting to write swimming around in my head. I just didn’t know how you went about becoming a writer. Honestly, it seemed outside of anything that was possible to me. So, I focused on my job practicing law. It turned out, though, that being a lawyer wasn’t the career I thought it would be. I had a good run with law, but it just wasn’t for me. What I really discovered I wanted to be was a teacher—either at the university or community-college level. So, I enrolled in the political science program at the University of Texas in Austin. I loved it there, and it was such a privilege to immerse myself in the scholarship of law, politics, and history for several years.
EC: So you’re a Longhorns fan?
DHWW: You bet. I still root for UT and also the Colorado Buffaloes. Anyway, after finishing my Ph.D., I taught as a professor at a number of schools, including Hofstra, Illinois State, and the Naval Academy. I loved being a professor, but I still had this dream of writing fiction. But, I had to focus on getting tenure, and so I wrote dozens of academic articles and conference papers as well as co-authoring a book on the Supreme Court. But, the dream of being a writer was getting stronger every year. Then my kids were born. When that happened, a switch flipped for me. Becoming a father forced me to reexamine my priorities. I started going to a local writing center and taking classes. I didn’t even know what a workshop was, which was embarrassing, but I loved it. I loved it so much, I went on to enter a low-residency MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I studied with a crime writer there who pushed me to read the greats. Jim Thompson. Chandler. David Goodis. Patricia Highsmith. All of those writers. I read the whole canon, man. It was fantastic. But, I ended up transferring to the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico when that MFA program opened. As a Native writer, there was no way I couldn’t go there—the school is intended for Indigenous students and has a great faculty of Native and non-Native mentors. I studied with some great folks there as well, and really began to refine my writing voice and understand how an Indigenous crime novel might work.
EC: So how did you finally break into the industry?
DHWW: Writing with kids is tough, as you well know. So, I had to take some breaks along the way. But I finally finished up my MFA in 2018. I went to the AWP conference that year, and they had this program called Writer to Agent. I didn’t have a completed manuscript. But I sent my stuff in anyway and was incredibly fortunate to be contacted by three agents who wanted to meet with me at the conference. The final one, Michelle Brower, asked if I thought I could finish the book. Of course, I said yes, and much to my surprise, she offered representation on the spot.
EC: And you didn’t even have the book done?
DHWW: No, it was about halfway written. I know it’s really rare for it to work that way. I liked Michelle a lot, and I accepted her offer on the spot. Then I went to a writing residency in New Hampshire and finished Winter Counts that summer. Michelle gave me some feedback as did some other great folks. I did another round of edits and then we sent the novel out on submission in 2019. Much to my surprise, we had a fair number of publishers who wanted to buy it and it looked like it was going to auction, but Ecco made a preemptive offer, which we accepted. Ecco is a really great press, and it’s been an honor to publish with them.
EC: Holy shit. And this was the first manuscript you’d ever written?
DHWW: I know, I’m lucky. But it was a long process getting to that point. I started my MFA program back in 2011 and started writing this particular book in 2017. Before starting Winter Counts, I was working on my craft nonstop and writing numerous short stories. The point is, it took a long time to get to the place where I was ready to write a novel.
EC: That’s such a unique story, and I think there’s a good lesson in there. You started writing seriously in 2011, but you didn’t rush it. You were content to hone your craft. So many aspiring authors I talk to these days expect the big book deal in year one.
DHWW: I was always studying, always learning. I read a ton of craft books. I have about a hundred craft books on my bookshelf as a testament to that.
EC: And you read all those classics too. That’s huge.
DHWW: Agreed. That helped me more than anything.
EC: Okay, when you get an idea for a book, what do you do first?
DHWW: My process varies radically depending on whether I’m writing a novel or a short story. When I write a short story, I don’t do a lot of prep work. I get an idea and I run with it. A short story is so contained, so discrete. A novel is the exact opposite. When I get an idea for a novel, I begin research immediately.
EC: Tell me about your research process.
DHWW: I’m writing the sequel to Winter Counts right now. It’s called Wisdom Corner, and I’ve been prepping for it for a good long time. I have this really detailed research process. I’m the exact opposite of a “pantser.” A lot of this comes from my training as a social scientist. For my dissertation at Texas, I spent three years coding court cases and then conducting statistical analyses of the results before I started writing the document.
EC: Oh, man. I can definitely see how that shaped you as a novelist.
DHWW: There’s just no getting away from it—I’m addicted to research and preparation. So, I start with a broad outline of where I think the story might go. I also create a Save The Cat beat sheet. I then create background notes for all my main characters: their back stories, goals and desires, even their taste in music. Then I do some free association work to try and discover new and surprising things about my characters. This was something I got from playwriting—I studied that at the Kennedy Center Playwriting Intensive seminar last summer. The free association work is a way to unlock your mind—I guess your subconsciousness—and come up with some surprising stuff. I also do a thematic outline, where I work out early ideas on what the themes of the novel will be. I also develop image patterns and symbols that will reoccur in the book. I even work out my literary references and allusions. In Winter Counts, I included homages to Jim Thompson and the Native writer Louis Owens. In the new book, I’m planning to engage with the themes from the great novel Things Fall Apart by the African writer Chinua Achebe. I want to examine the effects of colonization on indigenous peoples. Finally, I have a random list of cool shit I want to go in the book. Random stuff—things I hear or see on TV that amuse me. Basically, anything I see and like—I just throw it in there.
EC: I am adding a “cool shit” folder to my desktop ASAP.
DHWW: It’s a great thing to have! So, yeah, basically I do a lot of prep, and then I finally sit down and write. This enables me to hopefully cut down on the revision stage.
EC: How long does the research part of your process take?
DHWW: Many, many months. I’m finally at the writing stage of the second book now, but it’s taken me a long time to get here. I’m hoping this will become a series, which makes it a little tougher. You want every book to have its own arc. I’m bringing in some new characters with this book as I don’t want to repeat myself too much. There’s really a lot to figure out.
EC: I’ve never gotten to talk to anyone about writing a series. How far are you planning ahead for this thing?
DHWW: I’m just focusing on the second book. I’d be thrilled and honored if there were a third, of course, but that’s a way down the line. For right now, I’m having a blast writing the new book.
EC: Okay, so your research is done, now you’re writing. What does your daily drafting process look like?
DHWW: I’m an early-morning person. I have kids; I have to drive them everywhere, help them with homework. That sort of stuff. So, my best hours are four to six in the morning. Everybody’s asleep, even the dogs. Nothing’s happening, which is the perfect time for me to work. If I can put in two solid hours of writing, I’m happy. Now, I may come back to it later in the day if I have a chance. When I wrote Winter Counts, my son was in flag football, and I would write in the car during his practices. My other son used to compete in Rubik’s cube competitions, and I remember writing in a closet during a break at one of his tournaments. You know, as a dad and a professor, I have to grab the time when I can. I’m also teaching a few students at two MFA programs, so time is really at a premium these days.
EC: That story about you writing in the car at practice hits close to home. I used to write on the bus to away football games when I was coaching. Back to your morning writing time—do you aim for a specific word count during that time?
DHWW: I don’t. I just go by feel. Some days it’s not flowing, for whatever reason. Sometimes I have deadlines for various articles or promotional activities, or there might be some family activities that are pressing. So, I give myself grace when it comes to word count.
EC: Let’s talk about tools of the trade. Do you type straight into a computer?
DHWW: I’m too lazy to work longhand. If it works for people, right on. I just type straight into the computer. I keep notes on my phone if I have an idea. Sometimes they’re really cryptic, and I have to try and decipher what I meant.
EC: What about while you’re writing? Do you have any superstitions or vanities?
DHWW: Coffee. I think I’m with every other writer in the world on that one. My boys know to get me Death Wish Coffee. Whatever brand has the most caffeine. No music, I need quiet. I suppose the only vanity I have is the black chair behind me. It’s actually just a cheap leather chair from Ikea. But I really couldn’t live without it. It’s not that I have some sort of superstition about it, it’s just that it’s at exactly the right angle for my back. I have a bad back and the chair really helps. I’ve thought about buying another one of these chairs as a back-up.
EC: You fall into a camp of Shop Talk “chair” writers. S.A. Cosby and Stephen Mack Jones also swear by their chairs. Do you have a lap desk that you write on?
DHWW: No, I write on a laptop cooling pad, but that’s it. My laptop computer gets hot, so I have to use something to cool it off. I go through one about every three months.
EC: What do you for data backup? Like, at the end of every writing day, how do you save your work?
DHWW: I send it to myself as an email. Then, once a week, I backup on an external hard drive. I also have some sort of alleged “cloud” thing, but I don’t really understand it. I had a hard drive go bad once, so I understand the importance of protecting your data.
EC: After you finish the first draft, what do you do next?
DHWW: I’ll go through and give it a couple more reads. I just want to make sure what I’ve written weeks or months ago is still working. Then I’ll send it to my agent. I don’t really have any outside beta readers, although I’d like to change that. My partner is a writer. She’ll read chapters for me, which is nice. Another thing I like to do is read every dialogue scene out loud. I’m just trying to get the wordiness out and make it sound like real speech.
EC: Are you reading to anyone?
DHWW: I just read it to myself. I can’t even get my son David, Jr. to read or listen, even though the character Nathan in Winter Counts is sort of based on him. I’ve given him two copies of the novel, but he hasn’t finished it. So, if he won’t even read it, I’m pretty sure he’s not going to listen to it. My kids are very unimpressed by anything I do with my writing! I should mention that my younger son Sasha did read the novel and said he loved it. I’m hoping that was his honest opinion!
EC: You mentioned reading some craft books earlier in the interview. That’s something I haven’t hit on in this column before. What made you want to read those books?
DHWW: My feeling is that you really need to immerse yourself in every aspect of learning how to write. I tell my students that all the time. Figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are. Then throw yourself into improving your weaknesses. That’s where the craft books come in. They can teach you specific strategies to get better with that issue. And of course, you should also read other writers who are good at that technique. I make all of my students study scenes—I have them study the different strategies for beginning and ending scenes. I also have them study smaller techniques, such as using action beats and emotion beats in dialogue. How to create a rhythm with your prose, how to use setting to mirror your theme. Creating subplots and character arcs. In my view, writing is a mixture of craft and imagination. With enough effort, anyone can learn the craft and techniques of writing, but it is a tremendous amount of work. You can’t teach the inspiration, though. That comes from who you are.
EC: What are your top craft books?
DHWW: First of all would be Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy. Ben is a tremendous guy and a great writer, and his craft book is fantastic. I’d say it’s the best all-around craft book there is. For plot, I’d say Save the Cat. I’m a big believer that you don’t have to use the formula exactly. You can just take what you want from it. But you must know how a three-act structure works before you use an alternative narrative structure. Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin is also very good. I’m tempted to throw in Damn Fine Story, by Chuck Wendig, as well. Chuck is such an entertaining writer; a lot of craft books are really dry, but this one is funny and cool. Finally, I’m about halfway through A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders. That one is a contender for the craft book canon.
EC: I’m familiar with Save the Cat and Thrill Me, but I’m adding all the others to the pile now. Okay, so, one thing I’ve gotten from this talk is that you’re not afraid of putting in the work. From months of research to your extreme devotion to studying craft, you really work hard at this. What I want to know now is why do you do it?
DHWW: I write because I love it. I’m happiest when I’m in the zone: when I’m writing a scene and it’s really working. It’s embarrassing, but sometimes I laugh at what my characters said, even though I wrote the dialogue. I’m also truly grateful and delighted that readers seem to love the novel. But there’s another part to it, too. My work has an educational function. Many folks don’t have any idea about Native Americans. Often what they know comes from the film, Dances with Wolves. They don’t really understand about the laws that govern Native Americans in this country. Very few people know that the practice of Native American spirituality was made a felony until the year 1978. People don’t know about that, or the boarding schools or the problems with the criminal justice system on reservations. I get letters from people saying my work opened their eyes. If I can do that—if I can both entertain and start a dialogue about these things that are so close to my heart—then I’m happy at the end of the day.