At first, poet Regina O’Melveny didn’t realize she’d started a novel. She began to write a series of prose poems chronicling strange maladies and gradually puzzled out that they were from a single character’s voice.

In The Book of Madness and Cures (Little, Brown), the central character of Gabriella Mondini, a rare woman practicing medicine in 16th-century Venice, pursues her missing physician father across Europe. While the novel may sound like a flight of fancy, it’s grounded in O’Melveny’s childhood in La Mesa, Calif. Her mother was an painter, a first-generation immigrant from Italy, and their house was full of books with Renaissance imagery. Her father’s disappearance after her parents’ divorce while she was a teenager was also a major influence.

“Sifting through those memories was part of this,” says O’Melveny, who recently turned 60. She also faced technical challenges. “Because I was comfortable as a poet, I really had to learn how to shift gears to make the story move.”

But perhaps the hardest part was tackling the business. After a mismatch with an agent, she shelved the book for two years. Then she read an article in Poets and Writers about several young agents and began to query, eventually choosing Dan Lazar of Writers House.

Little, Brown editor-in-chief Judy Clain was intrigued by Lazar’s inclusion of a letter from the author with the manuscript, and even more by the book itself. “This is gorgeous storytelling with a great character that layers in an irresistible way,” says Clain.