Sometimes finding a publisher takes a lucky break, sometimes word-of-mouth works its magic, and sometimes the magnetism of an author’s writing attracts the publishing gatekeepers. For Intisar Khanani, all three came into play leading up to a two-book contract with HarperTeen for her originally self-published YA fantasy, Thorn, and a new companion novel, A Theft of Sunlight.

Literary agent Emmanuelle Morgen at Stonesong recently negotiated the deal for North American rights with HarperTeen senior editor Emilia Rhodes. Loosely inspired by the Grimms’ fairytale “The Goose Girl,” Thorn centers on Alyrra, a princess who is forced to marry a foreign prince she’s never met, and is faced with a difficult choice after a magical attack causes her to switch bodies with a common girl. The novel will be released in winter 2019, with A Theft of Sunlight to follow at a later date.

A Muslim-American who was born in Wisconsin, Khanani has lived in various countries and traveled widely, and now resides in Cincinnati with her husband and two young children. Living in Saudi Arabia during her middle-school years, Khanani “fell in love with YA fantasy” while spending hours on end at her small school library. “I was especially captivated by the novels of Robin McKinley and Tamora Pierce—I think I was imprinting on these books as a young duckling!” she recalled. “YA fiction was my first true love, and even at that age I was writing stories. And I never really left the YA campus.”

Khanani penned the first draft of Thorn as a college senior, juggling a 20-hour-a-week job, a heavy academic load, and a crowded schedule of extracurricular activities. “Somehow, I decided that if I really wanted to be a writer, I had to go ahead and just do it,” she said. “I began the novel as an experiment, to see if I really could do it, and the first draft was truly awful. I did about a dozen drafts of Thorn, and also wrote a number of other manuscripts during that time frame, but I kept coming back to Alyrra.”

A catastrophic real-life event helped forge Thorn’s themes. “I was writing the novel during the year of 9/11,” she explained. “Alyrra is a survivor of abuse, and is learning to come into herself, and her story is also one of compassion. After the terrorist attack, I was really struggling with concepts of justice and forgiveness and mercy and compassion. I felt as a world we needed more compassion—and a lot of what I struggled with at the time came into the story.”

A Propitious Publishing Path

Though Khanani said she “had looked for an agent on and off, submitting a close-to-final but not-yet-there draft” of Thorn, she finally decided to self-publish the novel in 2012 “to get it out there. At that point, my interest was in reaching readers.” And so she did: Thorn garnered some 5,000 Goodreads ratings and 700 online reviews, capturing not only the attention of readers but also the interest of Morgen, who came across the novel in a email newsletter.

“I was intrigued by the book’s cover, and when I started reading the story I was immediately captivated by Intisar’s luminous writing,” said the agent. “I also love that her fantasy world is inspired by diverse settings, mythologies, and histories. I feel that fantasy at its heart is about diversity, and I believe this author can take us anywhere.” And, she added, “The novel’s magical horse helped, too! I’ve always wanted to work on a book with a magical horse.”

After reading all of Khanani’s self-published novels, including the Sunbolt Chronicles series, Morgen signed up the author and began quietly talking about Khanani’s work, “testing the market for a self-published book and getting mixed reactions.” Then last spring, over lunch, she shared her enthusiasm for Khanani’s novel with Rhodes. Intrigued, the editor did not wait for a submission from the agent, but immediately sought out and read Khanani’s books, which, she concluded, well deserved Morgen’s praise.

“It was obvious that Intisar has great world-building talent,” Rhodes said. “With Thorn, first and foremost, the main character really stood out for me. Alyrra is very strong-willed, and I love how she uses her wits to negotiate her way through her world—in so many ways. And that world is so lush and beautiful, and the stakes are so high, that it is easy to fall into it. After reading this and her other novels, I negotiated the two-book deal fairly quickly.”

Grateful to the bloggers and readers who created such positive buzz about the self-published edition of Thorn, Khanani is eager to launch this new chapter in her publishing career. “It feels amazing and a bit surreal to see my novel move forward this way—and to think of all the new readers who will now find the book,” she said. “I grew up as a library kid, and to have the chance to share my stories with librarians—as well as booksellers, of course—is really thrilling.”

The author revealed that she has “more ideas” for continuing to build Thorn’s world, yet grapples with “the question of where I want to go next with it.” And, since she homeschools her children, ages five and seven, she noted, “It’s also a question of how much time I have in a day!”

If her first name is any indication, odds are that Khanani will continue to find a way to balance her writing and family lives. “My family is from Pakistan, and ‘Intisar’ is an Arabic name that means ‘victory,’ ” she explained. “When my mother was pregnant with me, she met an Egyptian doctor whose name was ‘Intisar,’ and my father decided that was a great name, since we all need a bit of victory in our lives.” So far, it appears, so good.