Is your protagonist you? Yes, always. But to what degree?
Like Hector Owen, I am a playwright who, as a young graduate with a degree in playwriting, moved to New York City to make my name, and then after years of trying, with some success but not fame and fortune, I moved to Asheville. Like Hec, I'm married to a woman I met in New York, and yes, I did some drugs in the sixties. The similarity, as regards my and Hec's biographies, ends there.
My novel could have been about any kind of artist, really -- a songwriter who hallucinates himself into the world of his song, a painter who walks into his painting, an actor performing in a play that suddenly does not end but becomes real life for him. If you are to be my protagonist, though -- whatever kind of artist -- part of your story is that you were one of the multitude of artists who felt compelled to move from their post in the real-life landscape of America to: New York City. You are part of that well-known but ever-changing subgroup of artists, subgroup of New Yorkers, who have gone to seek your fortune in The Big Apple. No doubt, you plan to be a big success, and you have a five-year plan. (I never knew anybody of this ilk who did not, at least for the first week or two in the city, have a five-year plan.) You find yourself some kind of survival job and you're off and running. Five years to fame and counting down.
At some point, usually well over three years into the plan, you start to admit some things. Sure enough, your five-year plan is not completed after five years, and has become the ten year plan. And then you've been there for ten years and you are still not that great actor or painter, but -- and this is the key -- you have not failed; you just haven't made it yet. You have not failed, you can be sure, because you are still in New York City, you have not left. You may be spending ninety-nine percent of your energy just dragging yourself to the day job -- a job you've now held for years and in which you have accumulated health care benefits and a pension plan -- but you are still in the city and you still have your dream. Then one day you wake up and you're sixty years old, or maybe seventy. You have learned a great deal about life, and you understand a lot about yourself now that you didn't when you were twenty-two. You can go forward. Maybe you no longer kid yourself that you're going to be a great artist, but you love New York City anyway. And still the point remains: You have never actually failed, because you have never left the city!
Or, you are not quite that stubborn. You spend your years, five or ten, say, in the city and you reach a point where you simply give up. The competition is too fierce, your talent is not as great as it needs to be, you realize that life can be more than simply pursuing a dream you developed in high school. So, you leave. You go somewhere else and you come to terms with, well, failure. Hopefully you move on to something else and are successful at that.
What happened to me (me, not Hector Owen) was that I reached a certain point that was short of any spectacular or even particularly notable success, and I left the city. I knew (had figured out) that my leaving was not tantamount to failure, and I was certainly right about that. But I was well acquainted with the mindset I've just described: If you haven't left the city, you haven't yet failed. This logic had its emotional grip on me in spite of any intellectual understanding I had wrangled out of the mess of considerations. Hector Owen, on the other hand, would be an example of one of those artists from the hinterlands -- Connecticut, in his case, not quite so hinter as, say, Texas, where I came from -- who would feel that leaving the city was the most tangible and incontestable admission of failure possible. And the stakes in his situation were raised exponentially by the unilateral act his wife committed, the "Big Excision" as he refers to it in the book. He not only leaves without making it really big, he does so after human sacrifice has been made so that he doesn't have to leave, doesn't have to fail. Why he did leave is another question. But the fact remains that if leaving, unfulfilled as a star, is humiliating, then leaving under his particular circumstance was humiliating tenfold, a thousandfold. As a writer, my task was to simply make the jump from the sense of failure and humiliation that I understood and could readily empathize with, to something similar to it, but magnified greatly in a different context. This is what writers do.