The call-for-requests post generated about seven emails all along the same line:
I’d really like to know how you wrote that Beatles story.
The story actually started out as something entirely different because I usually hate “what if John Lennon had lived” AU stories, for one simple reason: most of them are beatifically terrible. By which I mean that the common thread of these stories is that if only John Lennon hadn’t died, absolutely everything would have gone right forever. So the original story was a farce, originally intended to be the second in a series after “Scenes In An Alternate Universe Where Saved By The Bell, Rather Than Law and Order, Becamse The Dominant Television Franchise For A Generation.” The story at various points had Paul and John discovering the cure for AIDS, George singlehandedly bringing the Kosovo conflict to a peaceful end, and finished with Ringo being elected Pope.
There was a problem with the story, though: I didn’t like it. Usually after I write something for forty minutes or so, I know if I want to keep writing it. (This does not necessarily mean that it is good, but if I don’t want to keep writing it, it’s never going to be good.) And so I sat back and thought about Beatles AUs and why I hate a lot of them, and thought “what if John Lennon survived and it turned out that everything sucked anyway?” And I wrote that for about twenty minutes, but although it felt a little closer in message, it was even less fun to write. (Some people like writing that kind of story, and can make it really good to read. I am pretty sure I am not one of them.)
At this point I was about ready to give up on it, but then the magical little man who lives inside any writer’s head whispered in my ear.
“What if Ringo made a wish and it went all monkey’s paw on him?”
And that interested me. So I combined elements from the first two drafts blender-style and rewrote it. This time around it got closer to the feel of what I wanted: an alternate universe where John lived (at least for a while) but it wasn’t magical hunky-dory. Roy Orbison living and Michael Jackson and Jeff Lynne dying – they originate in this draft (the idea being that Ringo wishes for people to live and the wish, being a wish, turns right around and fucks other people over). In this draft, Ringo got what he wished for, but not what he wanted.
But it still didn’t feel right. Firstly, given the style I was using it was nearly impossible to explain the wish subtly without taking the reader out of the story. (I had to explain it to a couple of test readers, and both said that once they knew about the wish, it became obvious in retrospect. But I had to tell them. Problem.) And more importantly, there wasn’t really an ending to it: it just petered out. But I was tired at this point and was at the “aw, fuck it” stage, and scheduled it as a post and went to bed.
And then at about 4 AM I woke up and thought “what if it was time travel instead of a wish?” And I got up and rewrote for about half an hour and was finally satisfied with the damn thing. For those wondering, I was using the Marvel comics paradigm of time travel, wherein traveling back in time and altering the past creates a new timeline in which you are now trapped. So Ringo-Prime time travels, alerts Ringo-B, Ringo-B takes steps, alters timeline, but not enough to fix everything, and so goes back to warn Ringo-C… Not that it really matters, because you can use your time travel ruleset of preference. (I kept it vague for a number of reasons.)
The reason I like the story at this point might seem a bit strange given the reactions I’ve gotten to it, but I like the story because I think it’s ultimately a tragic one. Ringo/Ringos is/are attempting to fix the impossible. I mean, the point of the “new” deaths and Orbison living is the old “Sound of Thunder” problem – you can’t predict with any accuracy what changing the past will do to alter the future. People describing the alternate universe as “better” are just weird to me: I mean, yeah, I love the Beatles and The Muppet Show too, but come on – Michael Jackson? (I hold the minority opinion that Bad is actually a better album than Thriller.)
Here’s the sum total of what one gets in the alternate universe: four and a half more Beatles albums and seven seasons of The Muppet Show. George still dies. Linda still dies. John still gets shot. From a hardcount perspective, Ringo hasn’t really achieved much at all, which is proper because he shouldn’t be able to achieve much at all. If he goes back and tries to fix his fixes, he’ll just be throwing another stone in the pond and creating more ripples.
But the other thing I like about it is that I’m pretty sure he knows all this and he does it anyway. I’m a big fan of human defiance in the face of entropy and oblivion, of shouting “fuck you” to the void. Every once in a very long while, it makes a difference. And that’s why I think the story works.
That isn’t to say it’s perfect. There are things I might change in another revision. Initially I explicitly wrote that John’s assassin had an extremely low IQ, sub-Forrest Gump levels. I took it out because I thought it was overselling it and the result was people thinking I was tossing in a cheap shot at conservatism when in fact I was trying to avoid that. (Mind you, the cheap shot at Sean Hannity was entirely intentional. My explanation for this is as follows: fuck that guy.) Someone also pointed out that I forgot to mention Billy Preston and they were right: he deserves mention in here somewhere. And I think Roy Orbison would still die, but John would take his place in the Wilburys. But for the most part I’m happy with it.