A restless soul finds Irish inspiration

Rolf Lappert back in print after a long break

Whether it's the Arizona desert, the African bush or the Atlantic coast of Ireland, Rolf Lappert has always sought out remote and peaceful places to work.

This content was published on February 27, 2009 - 20:32

The Swiss author, whose latest novel, Nach Hause Schwimmen (Swimming Home), won the inaugural Swiss Book Prize, met swissinfo while passing through his hometown in Olten, in central Switzerland.

A self-confessed wanderer, Lappert has lived outside his home country for most of his adult life. Following the success of his bestselling novel, published last year, he is back into a busy schedule of readings after a three-month writing break in South Africa.

"I was staying with friends who have a game lodge near Kruger National Park. The less distraction, the better it is for my work."

Swimming Home describes the life of a troubled boy called Wilbur, who is brought up in Ireland by his grandparents after his mother dies and his father abandons him. The tale is also partly set in the United States, where Lappert has set previous novels and travelled extensively.

Island dream

Ten years ago, Lappert, who amongst other things has run a jazz club and worked as a television scriptwriter, was ready to find a place to settle down. "I had previously lived in Germany, France and the US and I wanted to build a house, have a base."

Although he had imagined somewhere a bit warmer, when the writer found himself travelling around Ireland in the exceptionally hot summer of 1999, he fell in love with the area around Kenmare in County Kerry, in the Irish southwest.

"I always thought I would like to live on an island. Although Ireland couldn't be described as an exotic island, it is an island and I love it – despite the weather."

Lappert had been visiting a fellow writer and compatriot, Hansjörg Schertenleib, who was already living in Ireland. The fact that artists residing in the country were exempt from income tax made locating there even more appealing.

And so the new arrival bought a piece of land and set about building his dream house on the coast.

Early days

When he was growing up, Lappert was more interested in becoming a painter, which is how he ended up studying graphic design. "My parents were supportive of me being an artist but they wanted me to get a qualification first."

The young artist started combining painting and writing and gradually drifted into writing proper. He had his first novel published at the age of 22, followed by collections of poetry and the first two parts of an American trilogy published in 1994 and 1995.

Lappert threw away another lengthy manuscript at the age of 30, an experience he describes as frustrating but liberating. "One shouldn't take oneself too seriously. It was probably for the best that it wasn't published."

The main character and ideas of Swimming Home had been in Lappert's head for some time before he started to write.

"When I started I didn't know most of the characters, the details or how it was going to end. If I knew everything then it would be boring." For Lappert, the characters come to life and begin to influence the course of the narrative.


And his inspiration? The 50-year-old writer mainly uses settings he knows from his travels. None of his characters or settings have been Swiss so far, although he says that may change.

Many of his ideas also come from observation. "I walk around with my eyes and ears open and I let things into my head, some of which stay there. After a while, if I've carried an idea around with me for a year or two, I write it down."

The soft-spoken author is modest about his success and it came as a "huge surprise" to him when Swimming Home made it to the shortlist of the 2008 German Book Prize. The Swiss Prize followed in October last year.

"Everyone at the publishing house said it was going to be a huge success but you never know. If there are a couple of great books published at the same time it's easy to get ignored. There are thousands of brilliant books that nobody knows about."


Lappert is pleased that his two novels from the 1990s, now out of print, are going to be republished in paperback by a renowned German publisher.

Swimming Home, brought out by Munich-based publishers Carl Hanser, is being translated into Danish and Dutch but a decision about an English translation is still pending.

There are funds from the Swiss culture organisation Pro Helvetia to pay for the translation but it is still difficult for foreign-language books to make the crossover to the English-language market.

"They are not waiting in the US for a book by a Swiss author that could have been written by an American," Lappert points out.

In the meantime, he is enjoying his European success and already busily writing his next novel, with a little help from his Irish protagonists.


Rolf Lappert

Rolf Lappert was born in Zurich in 1958 and trained as a graphic designer. After publishing several novels in his youth, he took an extended break from novel writing and set up a jazz club with a friend.

From 1996 to 2004 he worked as a scriptwriter, including for a Swiss television series. Lappert has lived in County Kerry, Ireland since 2000.

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Nach Hause Schwimmen
2008, novel
Carl Hanser Publishers

Die Gesänge der Verlierer
1995, novel
Nagel & Kimche Publishers

Der Himmel der perfekten Poeten
1994, novel
Nagel & Kimche Publishers

Im Blickfeld des Schwimmers
1986, poetry
Nachtmaschine Publishers, Basel

1984, novel
Nachtmaschine Publishers, Basel

Die Erotik der Hotelzimmer
1982, poetry
Nachtmaschine Publishers, Basel

Folgende Tage
1982, novel
Nachtmaschine Publishers, Basel

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