Dual careers a perfect match for author

September 27, 2000

Heather Heilman

It's not easy having a fabulous life. "It's very difficult when you love everything you do," Nancy Wagner says. "Do you see these circles under my eyes?" Wagner balances a full-time-and-then-some job as the director of paralegal studies at University College with a successful career as a writer of commercial fiction.

Since 1992, she's finished eight novels. Her books appear in paperback with the word "romance" in small print on the spine. But her stories don't quite adhere to the formulas of a typical romance novel. She compares her latest books, which are published under the pen name Hailey North, to Hollywood's screwball comedies of the 1930s. They're light, frothy, fun stories in which true love prevails after a series of misadventures.

But, like those madcap-heiress movies from the Great Depression, hints of darker and more serious things lie below the surface. Her newest release, Perfect Match, which went on sale in August, grew out of her experience of working with students who have learning disabilities.

"In Perfect Match I wanted to write about a student with ADD," Wagner said. "I have a character who just can't finish her dissertation and ends up being a street performer in the French Quarter. She can't sit still, she talks too fast, she loses things, she has to carry five sets of everything. But my editor wanted me to take all that learning disabilities stuff out. So people wonder why this character is so ditzy, but anyone who has dealt with ADD or lived with it will recognize it."

Wagner went to law school after doing graduate work in educational counseling. She was working as an entertainment attorney in Los Angeles when she began to think about writing a novel. But getting started wasn't easy.

"When people say to me they want to write a novel but they don't know if they'll get around to it, I completely understand." Wagner said. "It took me three or four years before I decided I was really going to do this."

She quit her job and spent two years working on her first novel, Two Sisters. Even though she was initially reluctant to think of herself as a romance writer, she says joining Romance Writers of America was the key to getting that book published.

"Most writers who are working on a book don't know how to get it out there, they don't know how to sell it," she said. "You learn all that in RWA."

When a love affair brought her to New Orleans, she went looking for a part-time job, something that would leave her with plenty of time to write. She first worked in the educational resources and counseling office at Tulane, then became the director of the paralegal program when that was still a part-time job. But the position grew and grew until it officially became a full-time job last summer.

"I remember the dean asking me if I was sure I wanted to do this," she said. "I said no problem, I'm so experienced now I can write a book and work full time. Which is true to a certain extent, but I really have to be efficient."

She doesn't have a set writing schedule, but when she sits down to write she doesn't waste time. "It hit me one day about three books ago, I could have written four pages in the 45 minutes I'd just sat there ruining my manicure," she said. Now, when she finds a half-hour or 45 minutes to write, she sets a timer. As long as the timer is ticking, she types.

"People ask, what about crafting the right word?" she said. "You can do that in rewrites. But you have to tell the story, you have to get the idea of the story out."

Sometimes when she gets restless working at home, she'll go to a coffeehouse to write. But she has learned to get her coffee, sit down, open up her notebook and write without getting distracted by the people around her.

"I vary my routine, but my routine has structure in it that reassures my mind that it's writing time," she explained. Despite the challenges of balancing two careers, she wouldn't have it any other way. "I really like my job," she said. "I'm energized by the people I deal with. I love the students, I love the teachers. I think all that input makes me a better writer. If I were just sitting at home, writing a book, I would go nuts." She admits she isn't good at making time to relax and do nothing.

"I'm working on becoming a more mellow person," she said. "It does get tough to balance everything. But you see, writing is fun."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000