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A winter's tale

He has written about villains and hitmen, and predicted a right-wing American showdown in the Middle East, but the strangest story of British-born novelist Neil Cross, now living in Wellington, may be his own.

For the past six months, Bristol-born author Neil Cross - his first book, the critically acclaimed Mr In-Between, was made into an award-winning film; his third book, Holloway Falls*, has just been published in New Zealand - has been residing in Ngaio, leading "a very quiet and quietly perfect life". He just wants to write books and be with his New Zealand-born wife and two young sons, but Cross's past is an unusual other country. The back-story so far ...

Three-year-old Neil Gadd is out shopping with his sisters when his mother suddenly ups sticks from their Bristol family home and runs off to Scotland with a man called Derek Cross.

Neil's father remarries, producing two stepbrothers blessed with the vital sporting gene lacking in the older son, and seven-year-old Neil is sent to live in Scotland. He becomes Neil Cross.

It is not easy to graft an English kid into working-class Edinburgh. The Scottish kids detest him from the get-go. Another strike against him: his South African stepfather is a white supremacist.

"I worshipped the ground he walked on, took everything he said as gospel," he says. "It took me a long time to realise he was talking rubbish. He had this massive respect for Hitler and believed that the Holocaust was just boyish enthusiasm gone a little too far. I absorbed all this and during a lesson on World War II put my hand up and said: 'But Miss, Hitler was a genius.' And the class fell silent."

It is the late 1970s, Scotland is a non-integrated, white culture and the boy, while being taught racism at the knee, is suffering from its effects.

"There was this sign you could see through my window and across the concrete playground, which read in four-foot-high letters, 'Go home Neil.'"

He also remembers his stepfather giving him undivided attention. The Gadd family didn't know, or want to know, one end of a book from the other, but Derek Cross read books (all the classics) to his stepson.

"When I got too old to read to, he'd give me money to buy books, so the whole relationship with books has him at its source. Which is a weird thought. He was very much my best friend - the worst rubbish on in the cinema, he would always take me to see it."

Neil's mother was Derek's fourth or fifth wife, but the tally doesn't stop there. Derek, a short man with an affected upper-class English accent and of military bearing, resembles a con man from a 1970s sitcom, "but he was weirdly charismatic in that he could make people like him for short periods".

The con man takes the family on a bizarre religious adventure from Scottish High Church to Jehovah's Witness and Catholicism, settling finally on Mormonism. Earning a crust, too, is not without its adventures. Derek goes from big idea to big idea, sells industrial vacuum cleaners and is at one time suspected, but not convicted, of the burglary of a large warehouse.

"There was this armed robbery where four men burst into the shop and cleaned out the safe, which he and two others were locked in. Apparently, he fought his way out with a pitch fork and I remember at the time thinking, what was a pitch fork doing in the safe?"

Within the church, Derek Cross has risen to the level of bishop. Responsible for the collection of tithes, he one day ups and pockets £30,000 and disappears into thin air with ... a black woman.

Neil and his mum flee to Bristol to stay with relatives. "After five months, Mum was just starting to come right and was just able to leave the house, when he came back. He'd found us and it was just great."

With consummate con man charm, Derek Cross says that he's made a terrible mistake and wants them to return with him to Scotland and start again.

"The thing was, he didn't want us to go back in a hire car, he wanted us to go back in style, in our own car. So Mum withdrew what little savings she had left, gave it to him - and we never saw him again."

Another marriage quickly follows, to a man so vile that Cross still visibly shudders speaking of him. "I look back on Derek Cross with a certain amount of fondness, because at least he had the good grace to be interesting. But the stepfather who followed was an odious man, just scum."

Thrown out of home at 15, Cross spends the following seven dole-fuelled years as a vandal, a Goth, a lead singer in a band called the Atrocity Exhibition - "we achieved mediocrity just before the end" - and the odd job, including a couple of happy months drug-trialling the sleeping pill Halcyon, and a stint as a pickaxe-wielding industrial archaeologist. And then he signs up for night school, where, to his surprise, he gains a couple of A levels and is accepted by the University of Leeds.

Though he has to be taken to the library and shown how to use it, Cross receives the highest first in his MA year and is asked to stay on to do a PhD. Never having entered into university life properly, he opts for a graduate trainee publisher's scheme at Pan Macmillan, where he meets his future wife Nadya Kooznetzoff, a former Dominion reporter from Wellington.

It is at Pan Macmillan, serving a rather Dickensian apprenticeship (cleaning up after the office cat), that he observes not only how the publishing industry works, but also how detestable most authors are.

"One of my biggest excitements when starting in publishing was to meet authors, because I thought all they'd do is talk about books. In fact, they sit round talking about advances, who's sleeping with who, or how badly something was published. As a breed, they're tedious to the point of insanity."

Mr In-Between (completed the same year as his MA) lies about for a couple of years before it's published in 1998 by Jonathan Cape.

The novel, about a murderously violent hit-man who rediscovers his ability to feel emotions, is a success. It's made into a film; Nick Cave loves it so much that he donates a song, free of charge, to the soundtrack; it premieres on ... September 10, 2001. Cross: "Post-September 11, the film industry didn't want any dramas or depressing films, so the film lost its impetus and sat around like dozens of British films and is only just beginning to pick up now." (It has just been released into video stores here.)

*Holloway Falls, by Neil Cross (Simon and Schuster, $29.95).

Cross's second book, Christendom, is a strangely prophetic science-fiction novel about a right-wing American crusade in the Middle East. Now he has written Holloway Falls. A gripping thriller, it's about a rogue policeman on the run, a suicide faker and a villain called Derek Bliss. That the name is close to Derek Cross is, he admits, therapeutic revenge.

"It wasn't intentional and he hasn't popped up in anything I'd written before, but his ghost is infused throughout the whole book."

Believing thoroughly and unfashionably in the existence of evil, Cross observes that most evil people never believe themselves to be evil. "It's kind of important to try to understand their humanity and not just to portray them as villains. If you don't understand evil you can't understand the attraction of fascism."

Cross is now a fulltime writer and his next book, Always the Sun, is due out next March. The subject - a solo father who takes his son back to where he grew up, only to find that the son is being bullied - draws on his own painful experience. "It was really personal. I'd been working on it 11 or 12 hours a day and hadn't told Nadya anything about it. I gave her the final manuscript one Saturday morning and she read it in a day and came upstairs and couldn't stop crying for hours."

The move from London to Ngaio, with a young son and a newborn baby, has so far been without a look back.

"I love it here," he says. "It's difficult to talk about a country you've moved to without sounding patronising, but I think, of all the places I've been, this is the most perfect place to be in and nothing yet has made me feel otherwise."

Cross carves out half an hour a day to dance with his sons to some of the best pop songs ever recorded. It's getting harder as the boys get heavier, because they like to dance in their father's arms. He frets that he doesn't share the national obsession for sport, can't drive, can't swim and is still wondering what to do with the drill his brother-in-law gave him for Christmas.

"It's interesting about the high suicide rate here, though. Is that a genuine high suicide rate or a media thing? It's just that it's a bit of a worry that we've come out here for the kids. I don't want them to ..."