Augustana’s Writer-in-Residence Releases Latest Novel

In the Shadow of Dora: A Novel of the Holocaust & the Apollo Program

The university is proud to announce the release of Augustana’s Writer-in-Residence and Professor of English Dr. Patrick Hicks’s latest novel entitled, In the Shadow of Dora, published by Stephen F. Austin University Press/Texas A&M Press.

In the Shadow of Dora spans two very different decades — from the Nazi concentration camp of Dora-Mittelbau to the coast of central Florida on the eve of Apollo 11 lifting off. The book tells the story of the intersections between the terror of the Third Reich’s V-2 rocket program and the wonderment of landing on the moon. In the Shadow of Dora captures real life events, exploring a largely unknown story of the Holocaust, the meaning of secrets, and how the past influences the present.

The author of The Collector of Names, Adoptable, This London, and the critically and popularly acclaimed novel, The Commandant of Lubizec, noted to his readers, “If I’ve done my job properly, I’m hoping that I’ve written something that is un-put-down-able and allows the reader to see things differently — that justifies the whole purpose of writing in the first place. I like to think that if you pick up a book, and if it’s meaningful to you, it should expand your understanding of what it means to be human.”

Released in October of 2020, In the Shadow of Dora is already receiving rave reviews. Author Kent Meyers wrote, “Few novels I have read so effectively and disturbingly question the relationship between the triumph of technological achievement and our willingness to ignore injustice.” New York Times Bestselling Author Jill Alexander Essbaum called the book “profoundly moving,” and author Brian Turner noted, “This is what the art of the novel was invented to do.”

In the Shadow of Dora took Hicks four years to write and was made possible in part due to more than $10,000 in funding. Hicks received two grants from the Augustana Research and Artist Fund (ARAF), the Madeline Island School for the Arts (MISA) Fellowship, the South Dakota Arts Council’s  "Artist Fellowship Grant,” and the "Excellence in Teaching Fellowship" from The Loft Literary Center — one of the premier writing centers in the United States. 

“My feeling about writing is that if I can’t see the story without absolute clarity then there’s no way the reader’s going to be able to see it. And in order for me to see the landscape of the novel, I needed to walk the ground where these things took place. I’m very fortunate that I got some sizable grants to do a number of research trips,” said Hicks.

Hicks, a Stillwater, Minnesota native, received his undergraduate degree in his home state and completed graduate work in Chicago, Illinois. For years, Hicks lived in Northern Ireland, Germany and Spain, earning his graduate degree from Queen’s University Belfast and Ph.D. from the University of Sussex in England. Since 2007, Hicks has been Augustana’s writer-in-residence, and has taught courses on creative writing, Irish literature, as well as honors courses, including “The Holocaust: The Citizen & The State,” for the last 18 years.

For more information on what others are saying about In the Shadow of Dora, how to purchase Hicks’s novel and his readings, visit patrickhicks.org.

Q&A with Augustana Writer-in-Residence Dr. Patrick Hicks

Tell us about when you decided you wanted to become a writer — when did you become passionate about writing?

“I was one of those fortunate people that I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a writer. I was just unsure how you went about doing that, and as I got older I was unsure how you could make a living as a writer. Really, it was a question of, ‘What job can I find that will be intellectually nourishing and can also support my writing?’” I was just delighted when I got the job at Augustana because it meant I could teach creative writing courses and there was also the expectation of publication. In many ways, this is my dream job. I get to write, and I get to teach.”

Give us a short synopsis about your latest novel In the Shadow of Dora, and how you decided these were the topics you were going to write about.

“I believe that writers don’t choose stories; stories choose writers. What I mean by that is we tend to write stories about experiences that we’ve had in our lives. I was exposed to the Holocaust at a young age and it’s always been something that I’ve studied. I’ve gone to a number of the camps and I’ve interviewed a number of survivors. Over time, I realized that I have all of this material in my head and it was only natural, I think, that a story would come out of that.

“In The Shadow of Dora is about the real life intersections between the Holocaust and the Apollo program. For me, they represent the two poles of the 20th century. One represents the darkest aspects of being human — what we are capable of doing to each other — and the other is this technological astonishment that represents what we are capable of doing when we work together. It’s darkness and light. Horror and wonderment. For me, these two moments in history embody the best and worst of what it means to be human.”

Talk about when you were first exposed to the Holocaust — at what age and how was that presented to you?

“I was nine or ten years old and there was a documentary on PBS. I remember watching that — it was black and white and it was of bodies being rolled into graves with bulldozers. I now know that’s footage of Bergen-Belsen (concentration camp), but I was just shocked and horrified at the injustice of it all. That feeling has never really left me. I like to think my writing casts illumination on certain things so maybe readers can understand history a little better, and maybe on that path to understanding, there’s an aspirational hope that we forge a future that is devoid of hate.” 

Talk about nonfiction versus fiction and your decisions there, it seems they’re so interconnected in this latest novel.

“Some early reviewers have noticed there are certain chapters In the Shadow of Dora that read more like nonfiction, and that was intentional on my part because the book is told from the perspective of a single character, my main character — his name is Eli — but he can only know so much, and that meant the reader could only know so much about this secret underground concentration camp that he found himself in. But I wanted the reader to have a wider view at times, so I used nonfiction to tell the story of the camp from a larger perspective. The book is mostly fiction, but there are three chapters that are rooted in nonfiction. One of these chapters, when it was published in a magazine two years ago, appeared as nonfiction. I was delighted that it was a finalist for the Steinberg Essay Prize, which celebrates the craft of nonfiction.”

Tell us more about the connection between the Holocaust and the moon landing and how that’s on display in this book.

“There’s essentially two parts to the novel. The first takes place in Dora-Mittelbau, this secret underground concentration camp where the rockets were built, and the man in charge of that was Wernher von Braun. He created the V-2 (missile) along with other Nazi scientists, and because of their technological know-how, when the war came to an end, they went to the Americans and said, ‘We have all of this special knowledge and we’d rather give it to you than the Russians.’ The Americans created something called Operation Paperclip in order to obtain this high technology. We brought these Nazi scientists to the United States and didn’t prosecute them for crimes against humanity. Essentially, we said, ‘We will not charge you with anything as long as you build us the best rockets the world has ever seen.’

“These men, these war criminals, were the ones that built the Saturn V, which got us to the moon. And so, we have the glittering prize of landing on the moon — but there’s a dark shadow to the story, and that’s the shadow of Dora. Some 20,000 slave laborers died in Dora-Mittelbau and, still to this day, NASA doesn’t really talk about it much. Who wants to think about that Faustian bargain when you can look at the moon and think about the dazzling adventure of landing there? My novel is an investigation of the stories we tell, and also the stories we bury.”

Do you remember when you first heard about the connection between the two events, and when you first thought about showcasing that in a book?

“When I finished my first novel, which was so dark and hard to write, I told myself, ‘Alright, your next novel is going to be about landing on the moon,’ which is something I’m fascinated by. As I started to think about what this new novel might look like, that’s when I remembered the V-2. It was only then that I realized that I could put these two stories together. The narrative came together very quickly after that flash of inspiration."

After reading this article published by Hannah Redder of Fiction Writers Review, the notion of your book coming out at the right time — that really stuck with us. What are you finding that readers need right now?

“I’m pleasantly surprised by this because initially I was disappointed it wasn’t published in the same year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of landing on the moon. Sometimes the universe doesn’t give you what you want though. I think the book is actually more appropriate today because it’s about authoritarianism and facism and hatred. It talks about hoaxes. I mean, often people say the Holocaust is a hoax, landing on the moon is a hoax, and I talk about why people deny reality. Why do people reject the truth and embrace lies? I didn’t intend for the novel to resonate with what’s happening today, but readers are certainly finding parallels.”

You have actually been to these places in your novel and researched them. Talk about how important that is to you.

“My feeling about writing is that if I can’t see the story without absolute clarity then there’s no way the reader’s going to be able to see it. And in order for me to see the landscape of the novel, I need to walk the ground where these things took place. I’m fortunate that I got some sizable grants to do a number of research trips. I did two research trips to Germany where I went to Dora-Mittelbau. Then, on another research trip, I went to the Kennedy Space Center. I also went to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the Marshall Space Flight Center, which is in Huntsville, Alabama. That’s where the Saturn V was built, that huge monstrosity of technological know-how. I needed to know what these places looked like, and when I had a feeling of what it might have been like to be in these places — either in 1944 or in 1969 — only then could I come back to my office, pound away at the keyboard, and pull the story up through imagination.”

It’s so exciting to be able to talk to an author, get to know that author and pick up their book at the same time. Talk about the privilege of being Augustana’s writer-in-residence and how fortunate the university is to be afforded your ability to write.

“I’m really grateful that I’m the writer-in-residence. I’m only the second in Augustana’s long history to hold that title. The thing I appreciate the most is that I get to talk to our undergraduates who have aspirations of becoming writers themselves. I believe that having a model — if you have someone modeling the behavior and living the job you want — it becomes more real. It seems like it can become a possibility. Just by virtue of the fact that I’m a professional writer at Augustana allows students to think, ‘Maybe I can be a writer, too.’”

When readers are finished with your latest novel, what is one thing you hope they take away?

“If I’ve done my job properly, I’m hoping that I’ve written something that is un-put-down-able and allows the reader to see things differently — that justifies the whole purpose of writing in the first place. I like to think that if you pick up a book, and if it’s meaningful to you, it should  expand your understanding of what it means to be human.”

How does In the Shadow of Dora compare to the others you have written?

“Most people on campus would probably see me as a poet. They’re probably more familiar with my poetry because I’m often commissioned to write for special events at Augustana, but at my core I’m a novelist. That’s who I am. My first novel will always be special to me because it was the achievement of a lifetime, but this one, this one took longer to write, and I’m just so pleased it’s out in the world and finding readers. That gives me more fuel to work on the next novel. I already know what it’s going to be about. I just need to get working on it.”


Book Questions: Contact Dr. Patrick Hicks, Augustana's writer-in-residence.

Media Inquiries: Contact Jill Wilson, public relations and communications strategist.