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August 26, 2020

David Heska Wanbli Weiden's Playlist for His Novel "Winter Counts"

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden's novel Winter Counts is a stunning debut, a fast-paced literary thriller with unforgettable characters.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"[A] revelatory debut crime novel propelled by vital and affecting Native American characters . . . Suspenseful, gritty, gruffly endearing, and resonant."

In his own words, here is David Heska Wanbli Weiden's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Winter Counts:

Music plays a huge role in Winter Counts, but each of the characters in the book likes different stuff! For this playlist, I was tempted to write only about the songs that have influenced me, but decided instead to put together a song or two that each of the characters in the book enjoys. The novel is a literary thriller, set on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the story of a hired vigilante who beats up criminals when the federal government refuses to prosecute felony crimes and lets offenders go free. This is common on Native reservations, and it’s a big problem for the citizens there.

The main character in Winter Counts is Virgil Wounded Horse (who loves heavy metal music)—he’s struggling with his job as a private enforcer and is also wrestling with his identity as an iyeska (half-breed). He also takes care of his 14-year-old nephew, Nathan (a rap fan) and he sparks up a romance with his ex-girlfriend Marie (a former Goth). His best friend is Tommy (a powwow music and garage rock aficionado), who pops up in the novel at times. Each of these wildly different characters is passionate about music, and, as I was writing the novel, I thought a lot about what songs would have influenced them. My own taste runs to post-punk and alternative rock, but only Marie would like those bands (and her taste leans more towards classic Goth, in any case). So, here are the songs, linked to each character, and I include a couple of my own favorite songs at the end, just because I love them so much.

Marie: I’m starting with the character Marie Short Bear, Virgil’s ex-girlfriend, because her musical taste is probably closest to my own. In the novel, I provide some back story for Marie, and I tell of her trips in high school from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota to Denver, where she and her friend Velma would make a pilgrimage to Wax Trax Records, the record store where I cut my own teeth, musically.

“Happy House” by Siouxsie & the Banshees

This song strikes me as one that a teen girl from the reservation—rebelling against her more pop-oriented peers--would listen to and like. Furthermore, Marie was attempting to dress at the time in the Goth style, modeled after early Siouxsie, so it makes sense that she’d love this band and its music. I hadn’t listened to this song in a long time, but I think it still holds up. There’s a cool claustrophobic vibe to the tune, some great hooks, and Siouxsie’s amazing voice.

“Drunken Angel” by Lucinda Williams

I had a hard time envisioning what music Marie would listen to after she got older. I knew that she’d moved on from her Goth phase, but what would she listen to as an adult? It came to me in a flash: Lucinda Williams! That wonderful gravelly voice, the guitars, the lyrics. In the book, Marie plays this for Virgil on a drive to Denver and he doesn’t hate it. It’s a great song from a classic album.

Virgil: I am not a heavy metal fan at all, but I knew that Virgil is passionate about this music. So, I gave some classic metal a listen before I started writing parts of the book to help me think about his character.

“Holy Wars. . . The Punishment Due” by Megadeth

This song is not really my cup of tea, but I think it captures the aggression that Virgil feels, especially before he goes out and beats the crap out of someone. I’ll admit, the guys in the band can play, and parts of the song remind me of Black Flag, but without the nihilism.

Nathan: He’s a 14-year-old who’s lost his mother and who’s having problems in school, so he listens to rap and plays video games as an escape. Obviously, I’m pretty far from this character in real life, but I am the father of two teenage sons, and I drew heavily from my own experiences when writing Nathan’s character.

“Lose Yourself” by Eminem

I’m not versed in rap—at all—so I relied on my 15-year-old son David, who told me that this song would be one that would inspire a kid on the reservation, especially if he was just getting into classic rap. I appreciate the passion in the words and the momentum of the music, and I can see why teenagers still gravitate to this song.

“What Made the Red Man Red” by Frank Waln

Here’s a bonus song, from the amazing Sicangu Lakota rapper Frank Waln. This is the person that Nathan wants to be! The song is great.

Tommy: He’s Virgil’s best friend and something of a jester, but he’s dedicated to Virgil and deeply proud to be Native. He likes a variety of music, which gave me free reign to have fun with his character.

“Demolicion” by Los Saicos

I’d actually written a section in Winter Counts where Tommy mentions that punk rock was invented by indigenous musicians—specifically, this 1960s rock band from Peru. This song is a hell of a lot of fun, and it certainly anticipates punk rock, although it sounds more like surf rock to me. I ultimately cut the dialogue section where Tommy mentions this band, so I’m happy to bring the song and band back here.

Dave (me): As someone obsessed by music, I wanted to write about a few songs that set the tone for Winter Counts—the music that’s influenced my own artistic style and aesthetic.

“The Have-Nots” by X

Without a doubt, X is the band that has meant the most to me for many decades. Indeed, I tried to come up with an epigraph from an X song for Winter Counts, but nothing really worked. In my youth, I was heavily influenced by early punk rock, but X’s music always struck me as both lyrically and musically deeper than the other old-school punk bands. Like other X fans, I was thrilled and surprised by their excellent new album, Alphabetland, their first in several decades. But, “The Have-Nots” from the album Under the Big Black Sun is, in my opinion, their best song—one that distills their working-class ethos and rough-and-tumble vocal style. I can listen to it over and over, and it captures the feeling I had while writing the novel.

“World on a String (Live)” by Neil Young

This song is from Tonight’s the Night, the classic album by Neil Young. Really, there’s no other album to listen to if you’re awake at 4 a.m. and thinking about lost loved ones. The studio version is great, but this version, from Roxy: Tonight's the Night Live, is just as good. The back story: In the summer of 2018, I was staying at the MacDowell Colony working on the last chapter of Winter Counts, trying to nail the final section but struggling. Late one night, I was playing billiards with the poet Peter Gizzi and the composer Michael Fiday, and I put this album on the stereo. The words, music, and tone of the album hit me—the dark and elegiac sounds were exactly what I needed to hear. I walked back to my cabin in the New Hampshire darkness, the songs ringing in my head, and wrote the ending of the book, Neil’s words echoing and enveloping me as I typed out the final lines.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden, an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota nation, is the author of the novel Winter Counts (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2020) and the children’s book Spotted Tail (Reycraft Books, 2019), winner of the 2020 Spur Award from the Western Writers of America and finalist for the Colorado Book Award. He’s published work in Shenandoah, Yellow Medicine Review, Transmotion, Criminal Class Review, Tribal College Journal, and is the fiction editor for Anomaly, journal of international literature and arts. He was a MacDowell Colony Fellow, a Tin House Scholar, and was awarded the PEN/America Writing for Justice Fellowship. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts, and teaches writing at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop. He's Professor of Native American Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver, and lives in Colorado with his two sons. Learn more at

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