05/01/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT
"He pulled alongside our car and started talking to us through the window of his Bentley. He was preening for the girls, telling us he had a Ferrari. His eyes were just little slits—he was scary-looking...
"Later, when I heard about the murder, my first inclination was, 'Yes. He did it.' "
A TANTALIZING BIT FROM NANCY Taylor Rosenberg's latest thriller? No—though it might be someday. The pickup attempt, according to Rosenberg, actually took place in L.A. one afternoon in 1989, when she was driving home from a tennis club with her 19-year-old daughter, Chessly, and Chessly's friend. The admirer—identified by Rosenberg as one O.J. Simpson—invited the trio, none of whom he had ever met, to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. "I was appalled," says Rosenberg, who declined.
For Rosenberg, it was one more bizarre episode in a life filled with pain and drama. Sexually abused as a child, raped as a college coed, schooled in crime and punishment as a career policewoman, she has plenty of material for gritty fiction—and she uses it. Rosenberg, 48, started writing seriously in 1991 after a six-year stint as a Ventura, Calif., law-enforcement officer. Her three legal thrillers—Mitigating Circumstances, Interest of Justice and First Offense, all based on actual cases—have caused her to be compared with the likes of Scott Turow and have all been best-sellers, leaving her room to take risks. Rosenberg's latest novel, California Angel (Dutton), ventures far from the formula that has brought her success. "It's about a dying woman who finds she can perform miracles," says the author.
Her muse this time was Janelle Garcia, 18, born with a deadly genetic disorder that usually claims its victims in infancy. Known as MMA, short for methylmalonic acidemia, the disease causes the body to convert protein into a toxin similar to antifreeze. Janelle, who lives in Santa Ana, Calif., with her severely arthritic mother and has been tube-fed most of her life, has survived longer than any other known MMA patient. "Janelle is so courageous," says Rosenberg, who became the teenager's friend and benefactor after Rosenberg's rabbi introduced them in 1992. "You can feel a divine presence around her." Says Janelle, who is often hospitalized: "I used to be afraid Nancy would see me really sick and not come back, but she always does."
Rosenberg's compassion, like her flair for fiction, is a legacy of her own troubles. As a child in Dallas, she was fondled by her maternal step-grandfather, a building-company executive who died in 1959. "He raped and sodomized my middle sister," she says quietly. "He told us we were sexy little girls, that we were naughty and that people would not believe us if we told." The sisters hid the abuse from their father, William, a Mobil Oil vice president, and were met with denial when they confided in their mother, LaVerne. "No one talked about that stuff back then," says Rosenberg, who coped by writing stories about an ideal grandfather, then ripping them up. "You're never a child again when that happens. I was very withdrawn. I decided I didn't want to be rich or famous, I just wanted to do good when I grew up—to make a difference in the world."
A brief go at modeling provided added income while she majored in English at Mississippi's Gulf Park College. In her senior year there, she was raped by an older man she met at a party but kept silent out of shame. She graduated, at 18, in 1965 and married Calvin Skyrme, a federal-government worker with whom she had three children: Forrest, now 29; Chessly, 25; and Hoyt, 23. (The couple divorced in 1984.) In 1971 she enrolled in the Dallas police academy. "I thought women cops carried purses and worked behind the scenes," says Rosenberg, whose actual duties ranged from answering phones to posing undercover as a prostitute.
Experience on the force taught her that harassment came with the job. "You'd enter an elevator, and five huge cops would get in and start blowing kisses," she says. By 1978 she had settled in Ventura, Calif., where she eventually took a job as a probation officer, interviewing convicted felons and writing reports that helped determine then-sentences. "Nancy was intelligent, proficient and very energetic," remembers Beth Hamilton, a friend and colleague from those days. But she didn't endear herself to everyone. "Defense attorneys called me the Angel of Death because I was writing their clients into prison," Rosenberg says. "That's where I started flexing my muscles in crime writing."
It wasn't until 1991—seven years after she had burned out on police work and moved south of L.A. with her second husband, Jerry Rosenberg, 50—that those muscles got a full workout. Bedridden at her Laguna Niguel home for a year after she was thrown from her horse, Rosenberg began writing to distract herself from pain and depression. She dashed off 1993's Mitigating Circumstances in nine months on an old typewriter in her kitchen and submitted it to dozens of publishers. After dozens of rejections, she signed on with an agent who auctioned it for $787,000. "Jerry's video-distribution business had failed, and our house was on the market," she recalls. "When I heard that figure, I ran out and pulled up the For Sale sign. It was such a thrill."
Never given to personal indulgences, Rosenberg has used some of her subsequent earnings to finance writing contests, with cash prizes ranging from $25 to $100, for kids at four inner-city high schools in L.A., where she also lectures. Meeting Janelle Garcia has given her another way to make her earnings, and her empathy, count. Says Rosenberg: "My goal is to get her looking forward to the future. I'll tell her, 'Janelle, I see you in a wedding dress. You're going to be a beautiful bride.' "
Rosenberg too is looking to the future. A film version of Mitigating Circumstances and a TV movie of Interest of Justice are in the works. And in the wood-paneled library of the 16-bedroom home she and Jerry (now a real-estate developer) bought in Tuxedo Park, N.Y., last September, Rosenberg is finishing her fourth thriller. She writes 15 hours a day, breaking occasionally to ease her chronic back pain by hanging from the ceiling in gravity boots. ("She's a little wilder than the normal mom," explains son Hoyt.) A fidgety sort who says she "can't sit still," Rosenberg returns to L.A. every two months, accompanied by the husband she calls "my dream come true," to see Janelle and speak at high schools.
The words of wisdom she offers her students no longer apply to herself. "You can find great release in writing fiction," she tells them, "when there's no escape from your life."
JOHNNY DODD in Los Angeles