Vicksburg author’s first novel deals with dementia

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

After seven years of generating ideas, writing, researching and revising, Vicksburg resident Sonja Sutherland has published her first novel: Outside the Picket Fence.

Sutherland came up with the idea for the book while working as a home-based occupational therapist. She worked with a patient who lived in a group home and had dementia. Sutherland explains that every time she worked with the patient, the woman would ask about going home. The staff always reminded her that she was home. Sutherland’s client could provide many details of other homes she lived in and often described her childhood home. Sutherland says, “It made sense that waking up every day in a place that holds no memories for you would make you assume you didn’t live there.” 

So, the idea for the book was to try to imagine what it might be like to have to pull clues from the present and mix them with the memories that are available, while both the present and the memories keep changing. Sutherland believes that might be what it is like to have dementia, and she “also wanted to show that the people I had been working with had interesting and valuable stories, sometimes hiding just behind their confusion.” 

About seven years ago Sutherland started conducting extensive research and began writing. At that time, she wasn’t sure where it was going to end up. She carved out some “me time.” Her children were young at that time and having something personal to work on was nice.

She began by writing a short story about the beginning stages of dementia, wasn’t sure what to do with it, and entered it in the Tournament of Writers competition in 2018. Sutherland was nervous about how it would be received. “I don’t think I had let anyone read any of my writing yet,” says Sutherland, “but I ended up being a grand prize winner.”

She found the judges’ comments helpful and used their suggestions and the experience as a launching point and motivator, next focusing on a novel.

Sutherland wrote a good portion of the first draft in the Vicksburg District Library. She carved out a few hours on Tuesday evenings when she and her husband planned she would be gone in the evening. She would bring her laptop and work in the back corner of the library. Outside of that, she worked to find additional time to write.

She rewrote the novel at least twice, then went through the editing process several times. Sutherland says she had some great first readers.

Sutherland decided to go ahead and publish the book this year, saying, “I just really thought it should be out there, in case it was helpful for anyone.”

For more information about Sutherland and Outside the Picket Fence, visit:

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